When Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., announced in August 1996 that he was gay — a revelation that would have been akin to signing a political suicide note for an elected Republican not too many years before — most who knew him simply shrugged and went on.
Kolbe, who died this weekend at 80, had always been for civil rights for gay Americans, but he had signaled he would vote for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to ban the federal government from overriding state laws that enshrined marriage as a union between man and woman.
This was vintage Jim Kolbe — always seemingly against the grain. He was a gay man, a supporter of gay rights, but yet he believed the states should have the last word on determining just what marriage was.
Concerned about "The Advocate" and other gay publications making inquiries about whether he would discuss his sexual preference, Kolbe orchestrated his "outing" in his own way: through a front-page newspaper column by his brother John Kolbe, columnist for The Arizona Republic and dean of Grand Canyon State political writers.
It never affected his political standing. He won four more terms with relative ease. In 2004, however, Kolbe was held to a career-low renomination (58%) in the primary by conservative House Majority Whip Randy Graf.
But it was not sexual preference but another break by Kolbe from an increasingly conservative Republican Party — in this case, his support of guest worker programs for immigrants — that fueled his opposition from the right.
Two years later, Kolbe retired and Graf won nomination in a five-candidate field that included Kolbe's former campaign manager. The outgoing congressman refused to endorse nominee Graf and the general election was won by Democrat Gabby Giffords.
Like his pro-choice stand on abortion, Kolbe would often cite the influence of his hero Barry Goldwater as his influence. He noted the five-term Arizona senator and 1964 Republican nominee for president, while "Mr. Conservative" to a generation, also expressed independent views on abortion, gay rights, and immigration that were akin to Kolbe's.
(Not exactly, Heritage Foundation scholar Lee Edwards, author of a much-praised biography of Goldwater, told Newsmax. Although Goldwater and wife Peggy were early backers of Planned Parenthood and the senator was personally pro-choice, he faced a difficult reelection in 1980 and adopted a pro-life position which included support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Goldwater won narrowly. Regarding gay rights, Edwards told us, "He, like other politicians of his generation would never have to address this and only did late in his career as a favor to his grandson who was gay." The senator came out for gays in the military and famously said, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight.")
"I never talked to Jim about his personal situation because I didn't think it was any of my business," conservative former Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., told us. "We were on an intraparliamentary exchange with Mexico, and I saw how he was respected by foreign lawmakers. And he was very respected in Congress as well. When the House was on the verge of passing a trade bill that would have been disastrous for the U.S. economy. I had a motion to turn it around and, thanks in good measure to Jim, 65 Members of Congress changed their votes and stopped this bill."
"And he was a really nice guy," Manzullo added.
Former Rep. Bill Cobey, R-N.C., agreed and recalled how "Jim, Howard Coble [NC] and I were constantly being mixed up when we came to the House [in 1984] because our last names were sound so similar. I recall that Jim was probably the hardest working representative in our class of 33 [Republican] freshmen."
Born in Illinois and raised in Santa Cruz, Arizona, Kolbe earned a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University and a Masters in Business Administration from Stanford. His passion in politics came young as one of the earliest members of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom.
He served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam and was decorated with the Medal of Valor for his service in the "Swift Boat" force. After working on the staff of Illinois Republican Gov. Richard Oglivie in the late 1960s, he returned to Arizona and went into real estate.
But politics beckoned Kolbe and in 1976, he unseated a Democrat state senator. Rising to majority whip in the Senate, he ran for a newly carved U.S. House district in 1982 but lost to Democrat Jim McNulty. Two years later, with Ronald Reagan leading the GOP ticket, he unseated McNulty.
Kolbe pulled no punch about his moderate politics and belonged to Republicans for Choice, the Log Cabin Republicans, and Republicans for Environmental Protection. In 2018, he finally left the Republican Party and endorsed Joe Biden for president.
But no one on the right who served with Kolbe remembered him with any vitriol.
Bill Schuette, a conservative House classmate of the Arizonan and later attorney general of Michigan, might have summed him up most succinctly: "Jim was a good man with a good sense of humor. Whatever our differences, I always knew he was dedicated to Arizona and dedicated to the House of Representatives."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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