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Former Tucson congressman Jim Kolbe dies at 80


Jim Kolbe, who represented Southern Arizona in Congress for 22 years, died Saturday, Dec. 3, of a stroke at the age of 80.

Kolbe, a Republican, served in the Vietnam War on the Navy Swift Boat force before becoming an Arizona state legislator and going on to Congress, where he was a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“Pima County and Southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Pima County Supervisors Sharon Bronson said in a statement Saturday.

“Whether he was in the state Legislature or in the Congress the man from Patagonia always acted in the best interests of Southern Arizona. Jim was old school Republican in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — a friend of business and the environment,” said Bronson, a Democrat.

“The preservation and conservation of beloved wild spaces and cultural treasures like Canoa Ranch and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area are the result in large part to Jim’s leadership while in the Congress.”

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Kolbe, who grew up on a guest ranch his parents owned in Patagonia in rural Santa Cruz County, started his political career by serving as a page for U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984 and went on to serve 11 terms.

“He belongs to so many people,” his husband, Hector Alfonso, said through tears on Saturday. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”

Some people might have questioned Kolbe at times on political decisions, he said, “but no one could question his integrity and his love for Arizona.”

Politically, Kolbe most wanted to be remembered as “a great mentor” for younger generations, Alfonso said — “those who wanted to be in the political world or to go on to the next step in their lives.”

In terms of his congressional work, he was known as “the champion of free trade with Mexico” and a prime architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he noted.

On NAFTA, Kolbe’s longtime chief political aide and head of staff, Vera Marie Badertscher, said, “If Jim had a driving force, it had to do with world economics and a free market. He believed so fiercely in a free market.”

And in the sphere where his political and personal lives intersected, “In 1996, when he had to face coming out” — fearing someone else was about to do it for him — “he was so afraid that would affect his political career, because he loved his work. But he made the decision and told his story,” answered questions at a two-hour press conference, and then went back to being a congressman, Alfonso said.

“He said that in that moment, he felt like 40 years of a heavy load were lifted off his back, because he was finally free and didn’t have to hide anything else.”

Said Badertscher, “He was proud of breaking a barrier by becoming the first out gay Republican in the House,” and also that “it has now become fairly common for anyone to run for Congress” without being defined or constrained by matters such as sexual orientation.

Kolbe later said he regretted voting in Congress against same-sex marriage through the Defense of Marriage Act. 

“After he came out, he was elected by even wider margins,” Alfonso said. “Because people realized he was giving and fulfilling a promise.”

Part of that promise fulfilled, he said, was that Kolbe came back from D.C. to his home district every weekend during his 22 years in Congress, from Thursday night until Monday night, except when he absolutely could not.

“The thing that always comes to mind for me was his incredible intelligence and his humility that went along with it,” Badertscher said Saturday. She remembered how at town halls, when audience members asked questions, instead of lecturing them on how things work in Washington, he would always ask them what they thought and include them in the conversation.

“He always wanted to bring opposing parties together, and he was absolutely confident he could do that,” she said.

Kolbe “fully embodied the critical values of civil discourse and bipartisanship needed to drive meaningful change in Washington,” said Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, of which Kolbe had served as a board member.

Kolbe and Alfonso, together since 2004, married in 2013. The marriage took place in Washington, D.C., since same-sex marriage was not allowed in Arizona at the time.

Kolbe was previously married to Sarah Dinham; they divorced in 1992.

Besides work, Kolbe’s favorite activities included cooking — “he was an excellent chef” — reading and collecting books, and hosting people for dinner parties, his husband said. He was active on community and think-tank boards and in public service until the end, he added.

He was also a rancher, Badertscher noted, having grown up on the working ranch in Patagonia with his brother John Kolbe, who was a longtime political columnist for the Phoenix Gazette and The Arizona Republic. They developed “a can-do, never stop trying, never stop working kind of attitude,” she said.

“I found a tribute to John McCain on YouTube that Jim did,” she said. “He said, ‘I would think that he would want to be remembered as a good family man, as a person who was intensely loyal to his friends, and a person who has made a difference in this country, and this world’. And it seems to me that applies personally to Jim.”

Kolbe left The Republican Party in 2018 and became an independent because of then-President Donald Trump. “I haven’t left my party. The party left me,” he said. He wrote a guest opinion piece for the Arizona Daily Star saying he was a conservative who would vote for Joe Biden in 2020, whom he served with in Congress.

“Biden is more representative of core conservative values — socially and economically — than Donald Trump can ever dream of being, despite all the phony tinsel patriotism designed to bamboozle his base. That’s why Biden easily gets my vote, and that’s why he should get yours, too,” Kolbe wrote.

He was heartbroken by Jan. 6, Alfonso said.

A school teacher working from home because of the pandemic, Alfonso did not know what was happening in Washington that day until he came into a room where Kolbe was watching TV. “I saw him crying, one of the few times I saw him cry in nearly 20 years. He controlled his emotions well. He said, ‘I can’t believe they are doing that to the place that’s like a temple to me. … They are trashing that sanctuary’.”

“Now I’m dealing with how I’m going to get through tomorrow,” Alfonso said, “but it’s the cycle of life. I want everyone in the world to know that if there is a proudest husband in this world, that was me.” 

He expects there will eventually be a public service, possibly at Kolbe’s church, Catalina United Methodist in Tucson. The former congressman also is survived by his sister Beth Kolbe.

Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags in Arizona flown at half-staff this weekend in Kolbe’s honor.

“Arizona lost a true elder statesman and political powerhouse today,” Ducey said. “He once said he was ‘born for the job.’ He certainly was and Arizona is better for it.”

Contact writer Norma Coile at ncoile@tucson.com