December 11, 2023

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Arizona GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe dies at 80

Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 20 years and became an advocate for gay rights, died Dec. 3 at 80.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced the death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Kolbe served in the Arizona legislature before being elected to the U.S. House in 1984. During 11 terms in office, he was a social moderate and a fiscal conservative and sparred with fellow Republicans over his strong support of free trade. He became chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

He also pushed, unsuccessfully, to do away with pennies — rounding off all cash transactions to the nearest 5 cents — a move largely driven by the rising cost of the penny’s main ingredient: zinc.

James Thomas Kolbe was born in Evanston, Ill., on June 28, 1942, and grew up in Santa Cruz County, Ariz. He served as a page for Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in Washington at 15. He became a member of the Young Republicans while attending Northwestern University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1965. He completed an MBA from Stanford University in 1967.

During the Vietnam War, he served as a Navy operations officer.

In 1996, he came out as gay, a decision he said he made reluctantly, preempting a magazine that was about to publish a story disclosing his sexual orientation.

“I felt if they were going to do that, it was time for me to stand up and be counted on this thing,” Mr. Kolbe told reporters at the time. “There is some relief; certainly there’s no embarrassment.”

Although he once said that being gay was not “my defining persona,” Mr. Kolbe ultimately became a torchbearer for gay rights. In a 2006 interview with the Tucson Citizen, the retiring congressman called the GOP’s continued opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and embryonic stem cell research “a terrible mistake.”

“As much as the social conservatives might not like to hear it,” he told the newspaper, “there will be a time when your grandchildren say: ‘What was the argument with same-sex marriage? Who cares?’ ”

In 2013, he married his longtime partner, Hector Alfonso, a Panama native and longtime special-education teacher, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Mr. Kolbe’s interest in foreign diplomacy continued beyond his time in Congress. In a July article in Foreign Policy, he argued that the United States should boost its engagement with Pacific island nations as China expands its footprint in the Asia-Pacific region, including its recently inked security pact with the Solomon Islands.

Sharon Bronson, chairwoman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, described him as an “old school Republican in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower — a friend of business and the environment.”

She credited his leadership while in Congress for helping to preserve “wild spaces and cultural treasures” such as Canoa Ranch, a 4,800-acre conservation park in Green Valley, Ariz., and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area — a rare, lush green riparian zone in a desert state where many rivers are bone dry.

Brian Murphy contributed to this report.