Jim Kolbe, a Republican congressman who fought for gay rights and represented an area of Arizona with a lot of Democrats for more than 20 years has died. He was 80.
In a statement, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said that Kolbe had died on Saturday. Ducey ordered flags lowered until sunset Sunday.
Kolbe was in the Arizona legislature before he was elected to Congress in 1984. In Congress, he often disagreed with other Republicans because he supported free trade and a guest worker program for immigrants.
In 1996, he reluctantly came out as gay after learning that a national publication was going to expose him because he had voted against recognizing same-sex marriage at the federal level.
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He also said he didn’t want to be the face of the gay rights movement. “Being gay was not — and is not today — my defining persona,” Kolbe said in 1997 during his first speech to a national gathering of gay and lesbian Republicans.
Kolbe left Congress at the end of his 11th term in 2006. He later got married to Hector Alfonso, who was his partner. “He belongs to so many people,” Alfonso was quoted as saying Saturday by the Arizona Daily Star. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”
Alfonso said that some people might have questioned Kolbe’s political decisions, but “no one could question his honesty or his love for Arizona,” the paper said.
Ducey said that Kolbe’s life and work for the state were very important. “He once said he was ‘born for the job,’” Ducey said in a statement. “He certainly was and Arizona is better for it.”
Others praised Kolbe for helping people who wanted to run for office and people who cared about the environment. “Pima County and southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” said Sharon Bronson, the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
So incredibly saddened by the passing of Jim Kolbe, one of AZ’s great leaders. A former member of Congress who loved southern AZ, Jim was a friend and a co-chair of my campaign. Jim always put his country first and I am so grateful for him. He will be deeply missed. 💔 pic.twitter.com/mtfxT8OWpD
— Kris Mayes (@krismayes) December 3, 2022
Matt Gress, who was just elected to the Arizona legislature, said that Kolbe was a pioneer in politics. “Today, because of Jim Kolbe, being a member of the LGBT community and serving in elected office has become irrelevant,” he said in a statement.
Kolbe got his start in politics when he was 15 and worked as a page in Washington for the late U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater. He later worked on the board that runs the page program. He got his master’s degree in economics from Northwestern University and then Stanford.
He was in the Navy from 1965 to 1969. He was sent to Vietnam and got a congressional medal for bravery there. He worked in the office of the governor of Illinois and in real estate before going into politics in Arizona.
Kolbe was chosen for the state Senate in 1976, and he served there until 1982. He was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in 1985. He was the first Republican since Arizona became a state to represent a district in the south of the state that was mostly made up of Democrats.
From serving in the Navy to the halls of Congress, Jim Kolbe was a patriot who could always be counted on for a wise word. He will be sorely missed by all of those who, like me and Gabby, admired his leadership and service.
— Senator Mark Kelly (@SenMarkKelly) December 4, 2022
Kolbe was well-known in Congress for fighting for free trade, international development, immigration reform, and changes to Social Security. He also tried but failed, to get rid of the penny because it was too expensive to make.
He backed a bill more than once to get rid of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about homosexuality in the military. He was a member of the Log Cabin Republicans’ national advisory board. This group is for LGBT people.
The Daily Star said that Kolbe left the Republican Party in 2018 and became independent because of then-President Donald Trump. He said, “I haven’t left my party. The party left me.”
According to the paper, he later wrote a guest column in which he called himself a conservative who would vote for Joe Biden in 2020.
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