James Thomas Kolbe (born June 28, 1942) is a former Republican member of the United States House of Representatives for Arizona's 5th congressional district, 1985–2003 and 8th congressional district, 2003–2007.
Kolbe was born in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, but when he was five, his family moved to a ranch in rural Santa Cruz County, Arizona. He attended Patagonia Elementary School and Patagonia Union High School, but graduated from the United States Capitol Page School in 1960 after serving for three years as a United States Senate Page for Barry Goldwater. He completed his higher education at Northwestern University in Evanston, where he was a member of Acacia fraternity and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, served in the United States Navy, and was a special assistant to Illinois Republican Governor Richard B. Ogilvie. He then moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he was a business executive.
In 1976, Kolbe ran for the Arizona Senate in a Tucson-area district and defeated a one-term Democrat who had been elected in the national Democratic wave of 1974. He served three terms in that body, and was majority whip from 1979 to 1982. He divorced his wife in 1992. In 2013, he married his partner Hector Alfonso.
In mid-1982, Kolbe resigned from the state Senate to run in the newly created 5th congressional district. He lost to Democrat Jim McNulty, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, by 2,400 votes. However, Kolbe sought a rematch in 1984. Buoyed by Ronald Reagan's massive national landslide that year (Reagan carried the 5th with 60 percent of the vote), Kolbe won by 6,000 votes, becoming the first—and until the 2014 elections, only—Republican to represent the Arizona-Mexico border region in the House. He was reelected 10 times, only facing serious opposition once. In 1998, former Tucson mayor Tom Volgy held Kolbe to only 51 percent of the vote. The district was renumbered the 8th district after the 2000 census.
Kolbe served as chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the House Appropriations Committee.
Kolbe is a moderate Republican. This served him well; although his district included most of Tucson's Republican-leaning suburbs, the brand of Republican politics practiced in Southeast Arizona has traditionally been a centrist and independent-minded one. Like his mentor, Goldwater, he is pro-choice. He was generally more supportive of environmental legislation than most Republicans, especially those from the West. He is a member of various moderate Republican groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans, the Republican Main Street Partnership, the Republican Majority For Choice, Republicans for Choice, Republicans For Environmental Protection and It's My Party Too. He is one of the four Republicans who voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act which was passed by the House of Representatives with 281–142 votes on October 2, 2003.
In 2002, Kolbe introduced the Legal Tender Modernization Act which would have ceased production of the U.S. one-cent piece (penny). In July 2006, Kolbe introduced the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act, which would round cash transactions to the nearest five cents. This act would effectively remove the penny from circulation. Kolbe argues that, because of inflation, the penny is virtually worthless, and that the U.S. should stop using the penny now that the costs of penny production exceed its value. Kolbe has received some media attention as one of the foremost promoters of eliminating the penny from circulation.
In 2004, State House Majority Whip Randy Graf challenged Kolbe for the Republican nomination. It was the first substantive primary challenge Kolbe had faced since his initial run for the seat in 1982. Graf ran well to Kolbe's right, but was best known for his hardline approach to illegal immigration. In contrast, Kolbe was a strong supporter of guest worker programs for immigrants. Immigration is a hot-button issue in the 8th, which takes up about half of Arizona's share of the Mexican border. Kolbe managed to fend Graf off. He easily won an 11th term in November. Also in 2004, Kolbe was among the 27 Republicans who voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, a constitutional amendment intended to ban gay marriage. He voted against banning gay marriage again in 2006.
On November 23, 2005, Kolbe announced that he would not seek a 12th term in 2006. His exit left the district open. While Kolbe had usually coasted to reelection, it had been expected to be very competitive if he ever retired. (Bill Clinton had narrowly won the district in 1996, and George W. Bush narrowly edged out Al Gore and John Kerry in both of his presidential bids.) Graf won the five-candidate primary on September 12, 2006. Kolbe refused to endorse Graf, who lost to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in the November 2006 election.
Kolbe endorsed State Senate President Tim Bee's bid to unseat Giffords in 2008. However, he withdrew his endorsement in July 2008.
Kolbe donated his congressional papers to the University of Arizona, Special Collections in 2006.
Kolbe came out as gay in August 1996 after his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act spurred efforts by some gay rights activists to out him. He won re-election that year. In 2000, he became the first openly gay person to address the Republican National Convention, although his speech did not address gay rights. He was the second openly gay Republican to serve in Congress, the first being Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin.
In 2013, Kolbe was a signatory to an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage during the Hollingsworth v. Perry case.
Mark Foley scandal
In 2000, when Kolbe found out about former Congressman Mark Foley's "Internet communications with teenagers" who were subordinate to Foley, he informed the office that oversaw the page program. He assumed the matter had been taken care of, although this was not brought to the public's attention until September 29, 2006, when it became public that Foley had sent sexually explicit and solicitative e-mails and instant messages to young adult male pages. Republican leaders had claimed that they had only recently been made aware of Foley's actions, despite Kolbe's actions. In January 2007, the Federal Election Commission committee ruled that Kolbe could use campaign funds for legal expenses associated with the Foley scandal. Former Senator Larry Craig cited this ruling in 2012 in defense against a lawsuit by the FEC regarding Craig's use of campaign funds in his own legal defense.
In October 2006, federal prosecutors in Arizona opened a preliminary investigation into a camping trip that Kolbe took in July 1996 that included two teenage former congressional pages, as well as National Park officials, then-current staff, and Kolbe's sister. During that trip to the Grand Canyon, he was accused of "acting inappropriately"; NBC News interviewed several people who were on the trip, and their accounts vary. On June 5, 2007, federal investigators absolved Kolbe of any wrongdoing in the case. In a statement released by the Justice Department, "investigators have completed their work on the preliminary inquiry opened by federal prosecutors last fall, and see no reason to pursue it further."
Kolbe is now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund think tank and a consultant at Kissinger McLarty Associates. He focuses on issues that were his priorities when he was in Congress—trade, aid and migration. In the fall semesters 2007 to 2009, he taught a class on trade and globalization at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law in Tucson. He is a member of the board of directors of the International Republican Institute. During the 2010 election he broke from the Republican Party to endorse the candidacy of Democrat Andrei Cherny for state treasurer. He is also a member of Washington D.C. based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue.
In September 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Kolbe to the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. Kolbe currently serves on the Board of Advisors for International Relief and Development Inc. He is also a Co-Chairman of the dollar coin alliance. Kolbe serves on the Board of Directors of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.