Former Congressman Jim Kolbe dies at age 80

Sad news emerged from Arizona over the weekend when it was announced that former longtime Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe died on Saturday at the age of 80, according to the Washington Post, reportedly of a stroke.

Kolbe’s death was announced by Republican Arizona Gov. Ducey, who ordered flags in the state to be lowered until late Sunday, as the Associated Press noted.

Marked by moderation

According to the Arizona Republic, Kolbe was well-known as a moderate lawmaker over the course of his career, always voicing his support for free trade policies and more a more liberalized approach to immigration.

Getting his start in politics at age 15, working as a page for Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, Kolbe eventually served in the Navy during the Vietnam war, before deciding to pursue elected office himself and embarking on what became a decades-long career.

Kolbe spent time in the Arizona Senate prior to his election to Congress in 1984, and gained a reputation as someone who was willing to do battle with others in his party over the aforementioned issues.

“When you hear the word ‘liberal’ used about me, they are usually talking about two issues – the ERA and abortion,” Kolbe explained in 1982. “I don’t think I’m a liberal at all. I have a background in economics at Stanford University, a pretty conservative institution, and I am death on government regulations.”

Reluctant activist

The lawmaker made headlines in 1996 when he publicly came out as gay in response to plans from a national publication to break the news in angry retaliation for the congressman’s vote against a federal law recognizing same-sex marriage.

In an effort to get ahead of the story, Kolbe’s brother – a prominent Arizona political journalist – penned a column in the Republic acknowledging the lawmaker’s sexual orientation.

“That I am a gay person has never affected the way that I legislate,” said Kolbe at the time of the revelation.

The following year, during his first speaking appearance before a national convention of gay Republicans, Kolbe declared, “Being gay was not – and is not today – my defining persona.”

Following his retirement from Congress, Kolbe wed his longtime partner, Hector Alfonso, to whom he remained married up until his death.

Tributes pour in

In the immediate aftermath of Kolbe’s passing, luminaries from his home state and beyond began paying tribute to the late legislator, with Ducey stating, “Arizona lost a true elder statesman and political powerhouse today” and adding that the late congressman “led a life of remarkable public service.”

Former Arizona Democrat Sen. Dennis DeConcini lauded Kolbe for their collaborations on tribal matters as well as border concerns, saying, according to the Republic, “To me, he is what the Republican Party used to be under Goldwater and Bob Dole and even Ronald Reagan. They were conservative with less government and what have you, but they listened to people. Jim had a way to listen to somebody even if he disagreed.”

Alfonso offered perhaps the most poignant and public-spirited praise for his late spouse, saying on Saturday, “He belongs to so many people. He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”