at the top
Arizona’s Jim Kolbe talks about his role in Congress and in the GOP, and when outing is justified
Washington, D.C.--When Congress closes at year’s end it will lose one of three openly gay members, and its only gay Republican.
Rep. Jim Kolbe announced in November that he will not seek a 12th term representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district in the southeast corner of the state.
At age 63, Kolbe says he wants to finish his career teaching and doing international consulting on issues of trade.
Kolbe discussed LGBT politics, his life, and his career in a March interview with the Gay People’s Chronicle.
“It’s best to leave at the top of your game, and when people want you to stay,” Kolbe began.
Kolbe has handily defended his seat from Democratic opposition, though the district is considered to be increasingly competitive. The presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry showed a shift favoring Democrats.
That has left Kolbe with the opportunity to position himself away from the right wing of his party, and in favor of reproductive choice, civil unions, guest worker programs for immigrants, and environmental protection.
Kolbe, a Navy veteran and former Arizona senator, came out in 1996 somewhat reluctantly after he cast a vote for the federal “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Also that year, the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Bob Dole for president, even though he returned their $1,000 check. The event drew attention to LGBT issues in the campaign and to the possibility that there were more gay Republicans in Congress than the retiring Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin.
It had been long speculated in Arizona media that Kolbe was probably gay, and angry LGBT activists threatened to out him after the DOMA vote. Kolbe didn’t wait for that to happen. In October, he joined fellow Arizonans Steve May, a state senate candidate, and Tempe mayor Neil Guiliano in leaving the closet behind.
In doing so, Kolbe has often been caught in the middle of Republican Party culture wars and ideology. Even after coming out, Kolbe has not been the most outspoken member of Congress in favor of LGBT equality, preferring a more live-and-let-live approach. But when he has spoken out, his leadership among like-minded Republicans has made a difference.
Not sure DOMA position was ‘practical’
Kolbe said he supported the federal DOMA “on a state rights basis.”
“There has always been the concept of the Tenth Amendment” reserving rights to states, said Kolbe, “and states ought to have the right to decide about marriage.”
“But as I have looked at [that vote] more,” said Kolbe, “I’m not sure the position was practical.”
Kolbe, however, would not commit to saying he would vote against it if it was to come before Congress today.
He does oppose the federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He said he will work to defeat it when it gets to the House, as he did in 2004.
Kolbe is not without arguable philosophical contradictions on LGBT issues.
He opposed the 1993 compromise creating the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, but concedes he did not speak against it.
In 2005, he supported a resolution in favor of the Solomon Amendment requiring colleges and universities to lose all federal money if they prohibit military recruiters. That vote was taken shortly after an appeals court ruled Solomon unconstitutional, and it also urged the Bush administration to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schools were prohibiting the recruiters because the military’s gay ban went against their non-discrimination policies.
“That wasn’t an anti-gay vote,” said Kolbe. “ ‘Don’t ask don’t tell’ is the law of the land and legally established policy.”
He added that he thinks it is proper for the federal government to regulate how it spends money.
Kolbe was one of the original co-sponsors of a bill to give same-sex partners immigration rights, called the Permanent Partners Act.
Asked if the issue of LGBT disparity will enter the now-heated national discussion on immigration, Kolbe said, “It should, but it won’t.”
In 2002, he voted against a motion to reconsider a measure allowing “faith-based” groups to keep federal funds while exempting themselves from local gay and lesbian non-discrimination laws.
Power keeps anti-gays at bay
Kolbe does not consider the anti-gay rejection keeping him outside some Republican circles to be discrimination.
Shortly after coming out, Kolbe rallied Log Cabin Republicans at their 1997 convention.
In 1999, he gave one of his most impassioned floor speeches in favor of the gay and lesbian Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and worked to steer Republicans away from anti-gay legislation.
Then in 2000, he was turned down as a Thanksgiving Day volunteer at the Gospel Rescue Mission in his district.
Kolbe also downplays the most visible anti-gay act against him--the brouhaha over his speaking at the 2000 Republican National Convention.
At that convention, Kolbe spoke about international trade, an area where he is widely recognized as an expert.
Though Kolbe was the first openly gay person to address a Republican convention, the Bush campaign would not allow him to broach LGBT issues in any way.
Then, during his speech, the Texas delegation took off their cowboy hats, bowed their heads, and refused to acknowledge Kolbe’s presence.
“It was just a handful of people,” said Kolbe suggesting that the Texas delegation was too small to be concerned with.
Kolbe is also not disappointed that he was prohibited from talking about anything other than trade during the speech.
“Trade is a natural issue for me,” he said. But he does expect a gay speaker to be able to talk about LGBT issues at a Republican convention “soon” and that they will someday be non-issues.
Kolbe chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the powerful Appropriations Committee, making him a powerful force in how money is spent.
He suggests that his power insulates him from some of the anti-gay activity of the Republican Party while he does his congressional duty.
“[Congressional homophobia] is not an issue at all,” said Kolbe. “After all, as subcommittee chair, I bring big issues to the [House] floor.”
“I have never felt that I suffered discrimination or suffer in my caucus being gay,” said Kolbe. “By the time I came out, I was a 12-year veteran and chair of an appropriation subcommittee. I have always been respected for the work I have done.”
Outing may be legitimate
“Being forced out was the best thing that happened to me,” Kolbe says, but he also opposes outing elected officials who do anti-gay things. “People must make the choice to come out themselves.”
But as he spoke, his position changed.
“The exception,” said Kolbe, “is when someone very visible is publicly hurting [LGBT people]. Then it becomes a legitimate policy issue.”
Kolbe traveled to Toledo in 2001 to speak for the Log Cabin Republicans. He expects to continue to make those types of appearances after retirement.
Kolbe sees LGBT groups increasing their effectiveness around members of Congress, and says all members of Congress have greater awareness and appreciation for what groups like HRC, the Lesbian and Gay Victory Fund, and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network are doing.
Kolbe said he wants his legacy to include that gay elected officials “don’t need to be confined to gay issues.”
“Straight people aren’t confined to straight issues,” said Kolbe, “and you can be gay and be involved at all levels of the social and political process.”
Kolbe said he wants to be remembered for his trade and foreign policy work “and making the world a little better place for gays.”