PHOENIX — Jim Kolbe, a Republican congressman who represented a heavily Democratic region of Arizona for more than two decades and was a proponent of gay rights, has died. He was 80.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement that Kolbe died Saturday. Ducey ordered flags lowered until sunset Sunday.
Kolbe served in the Arizona Legislature before being elected in 1984 to Congress, where he often was at odds with other Republicans over his support for free trade and an immigrant guest worker program.
He announced reluctantly in 1996 that he was gay, after learning a national publication planned to out him for his vote against federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
He also said he didn’t want to be a poster child for the gay 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 retired from Congress when his 11th term ended in 2006. He later married his partner, Hector Alfonso.
“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.”
Some people might have questioned Kolbe at times on political decisions, Alfonso said, “but no one could question his integrity and his love for Arizona,” the paper reported.
Ducey called Kolbe’s life and service to the state remarkable.
“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 mentoring aspirants to political office and environmental advocates.
“Pima County and southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson said in a statement.
Matt Gress, who was recently elected to the Arizona Legislature, called Kolbe a political pioneer.
“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 started his political career at 15 as a page for the late U.S Sen. Barry Goldwater in Washington and later served on the board that oversees the page program. He attended Northwestern University and then Stanford, earning a master’s degree in economics.
From 1965 to 1969, he served in the Navy. He was deployed to Vietnam, where he was awarded a congressional medal for valor.
After stints working in the Illinois governor’s office and in real estate, he entered Arizona politics. Kolbe was elected in 1976 to the state Senate and served until 1982. He was sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1985, the first Republican since Arizona statehood to represent a majority-Democratic district in the southern part of the state.
Kolbe was known in Congress for his advocacy for free trade, international development, immigration and Social Security reform. He also waged an unsuccessful campaign to eliminate the penny due to production costs.
He repeatedly co-sponsored a bill to scrap the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality. He sat on the national advisory board of the Log Cabin Republicans, which represents the LGBT community.
The Daily Star reported that Kolbe left the Republican Party in 2018 and became an independent because of then-President Donald Trump, saying, “I haven’t left my party. The party left me.”
He later wrote a guest column calling himself a conservative who would vote in 2020 for his former Capitol Hill colleague Joe Biden, according to the paper.