Jim Kolbe, Openly Gay Republican Congressman, Is Dead at 80

Jim Kolbe, who for a decade was the only openly gay Republican in Congress, died on Saturday. He was 80.

The death was announced by Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona. The statement did say where he died or cite a cause.

Mr. Kolbe, who served in the House of Representatives from 1985 until he retired in 2007, represented a politically moderate area of Arizona centered on Tucson, and for the first half of his tenure he was known mainly as a low-key fiscal conservative. He served as a lead negotiator in the House while working on the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Following his vote in July 1996 for passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage and permitted states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, Mr. Kolbe (pronounced KOHL-bee) caught wind of the fact that The Advocate, a magazine for gay readers, planned to publish a story saying that he was a closeted homosexual.

A few weeks later, shortly before the article appeared, Mr. Kolbe beat them to it. “That I am a gay person has never affected the way I legislate,” he said in a statement. “The fact that I am gay has never, nor will it ever, change my commitment to represent all the people of Arizona’s Fifth District.”

He defended his vote on the Defense of Marriage Act in an interview with The Tucson Citizen, saying that as a conservative, he believed individual states should be allowed to determine their laws surrounding same-sex marriage.

Mr. Kolbe told The Citizen that he had felt forced to come out of the closet. But he added, “I have probably had better conversations with family and friends in the last 48 hours than in the last 48 years.”

At the time, there were three other openly gay members of the House: Barney Frank and Gerry Studds, both Massachusetts Democrats, and Steve Gunderson, a Republican from Wisconsin.

(George Santos, who won a House race in New York last month, will become the first Republican to be elected to Congress after having come out, Charles T. Moran, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative group that supports gay rights, said in an email.)

Mr. Kolbe faced re-election just months later. Posters appeared in his district at the time reading “KOLBE RAPED A BOY” and “KOLBE: I HAVE AIDS,” The Advocate reported in a 2004 profile. Yet he won, with 68 percent of the vote. Mr. Gunderson retired in 1997, leaving Mr. Kolbe the only openly gay person in his congressional caucus.

At the 2000 Republican National Convention, Mr. Kolbe received a prime-time speaking slot, which The Advocate said was a first for an openly gay Republican.

He spoke about free trade, a central principle in his political career, and avoided the subject of sexuality. Nevertheless, to register their disapproval, delegates from Texas took off their straw cowboy hats, closed their eyes and bowed their heads in prayer. One man held a sign reading, “There is a way out.”

Over time, Mr. Kolbe took on a more active role in gay issues. In what The Advocate labeled a series of “quiet fights,” he promoted legislation to combat hate crimes and supported measures to halt discrimination in employment.

Christopher Barron, the former political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, told The Advocate that Mr. Kolbe was the “epitome” of what Republicanism meant to the organization.

Mr. Kolbe in 1993. “That I am a gay person has never affected the way I legislate,” he said when he came out three years later.Credit…Chris Martin/CQ Roll Call, via Associated Press

James Thomas Kolbe was born on June 28, 1942, in Evanston, Ill. His father, William Kolbe, ran the Reed Candy Company, which was founded by the grandfather of Jim’s mother, Helen (Reed) Kolbe.

When Jim was a boy, his father retired from corporate life. The family moved to Arizona and bought a dude ranch, where they raised cattle, gutted chickens and churned butter.

Jim was riveted by the victory of Barry Goldwater, then a political newcomer, in his 1952 Arizona Senate race against Ernest McFarland, who was the Senate’s Democratic majority leader at the time. At 15, Jim left Arizona to move to Washington, where he worked as Goldwater’s Senate page.

During his three-year tenure, Jim learned that elected leaders were not so different from ordinary people, and he vowed that he would return after winning a race of his own.

He graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1965 and received a master’s degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1967. He entered the Navy that year and served on gunboats in the treacherous Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Kolbe, who later supported the 2003 Iraq war, told The Times in 1987 that the lesson he learned from his experience in Vietnam was “You need to stick by commitments that you make.”

He won election to the Arizona State Senate in 1976. The next year he married Sarah Dinham, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Arizona. They divorced in 1992. In 2013 he married his partner of eight years, Hector Alfonso, a special-education teacher, who survives him.

A complete list of Mr. Kolbe’s survivors was not immediately available. He split his time between homes in Washington and Arizona.

Aside from free trade, Mr. Kolbe’s areas of focus included efforts to ban the penny, which he attempted through legislation from the 1980s through the early 2000s, and support for abortion rights.

“I consider myself a conservative, but if I were in the House of Representatives today, they would not consider me a conservative Republican,” he told “Arizona 360,” a local public television program, in 2018.

After retiring from Congress, he was a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank that promotes cooperation between the United States and Europe.

In a 2017 interview with the podcast “Where Genius Grows,” Mr. Kolbe recanted his initial view of the Defense of Marriage Act. “In retrospect, my vote was wrong,” he said. And he spoke happily about coming out of the closet, even though at the time he had felt he had no choice: “It was one of the most empowering experiences of my life, because suddenly I had this burden lifted off my shoulders.”

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