February 22, 2012 at 11:44 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Outed GOP sheriff finds gay support

Jim Kolbe (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A gay former congressman is throwing his support behind Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, days after the congressional candidate came out as gay.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, former Rep. Jim Kolbe, who served in Congress from 1985 to 2007, endorsed the candidacy of his fellow Arizonian Republican, who came out over the weekend after he was outed by the Phoenix New Times.

“I endorse Paul Babeu based on his distinguished record of service to his country both in the military and as a law enforcement officer,” Kolbe said. “I think he has a solid understanding of the short and long-term economic problems that face this country and is willing to make the necessary, tough decisions to tackle them.”

In the New Times piece, Jose, whose last name wasn’t disclosed, alleged Babeu threatened him with deportation after their relationship soured. The article included shirtless photos of the candidate allegedly sent to Jose and a picture that appeared to be his adam4adam profile.

But Babeu denied the allegations against him at a news conference held on Saturday — except the news about his sexual orientation — and came out as gay. In a later interview Monday on CNN, Babeu admitted to dating Jose, but said the allegations about deportation threats aren’t true because he doesn’t have the authority to deport undocumented immigrants, only the authority to arrest them.

Kolbe, now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund think tank and a consultant at Kissinger McLarty Associates, came out as gay himself in 1996 after LGBT rights groups criticized him for voting in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act.

But Kolbe said he wouldn’t draw a comparison between his coming out and Babeu’s announcement because “every person has a different story of coming out.”

“The obvious similarity for Paul and myself is that we are both in public office, while the obvious difference is that I was already in Congress, while he is seeking election to the Congress,” Kolbe said. “Beyond that, every person faced with a similar situation has a unique story of how and when they decide to come out and how it is dealt with.”

Kolbe said he knew about Babeu’s sexual orientation prior to the candidate’s announcement on Saturday based on conversations the two had previously.

“I knew he was gay,” Kolbe said. “That is the only thing that I can say that I knew. We had several little discussions about that in my conversations with him. That’s all I would say about that.”

Even though he was in a relationship with an immigrant, Babeu has taken a hard line on the issue of immigration during his political career. During an appearance at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference, Babeu criticized the Obama administration for fighting in court the state’s strict law against illegal immigration.

Babeu, whose campaign didn’t respond to an interview request from the Washington Blade, could break from conservative ranks on LGBT rights if elected to Congress. He suggested that he supports same-sex marriage during his CNN interview, saying “this is where I go Ron Paul on people” and adding that the issue should fall to the states.

“This is where our government needs to get the heck out of the way, and if it’s not harming somebody, then what does it matter?” Babeu said. “And you can’t legislate love.”

Babeu added that he believes in freedom of religion and “there are faiths and religions that our government shouldn’t get involved in that absolutely do not condone gay marriage” while saying he doesn’t believe the government should tell other faiths they can’t support it.

The candidate’s coming out means four openly LGBT candidates are running for Congress in Arizona — more than any other state in the country. Besides Babeu, Democratic Rep. Matt Heinz and state Sen. Paula Aboud are running to succeed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who’s bisexual, is also running. On Tuesday, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund endorsed Sinema.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu (Photo by Gage Skidmore via wikimedia commons)

Whether Babeu, elected as sheriff in 2008 and once considered a rising star within the GOP, can remain viable is an open question. In a conservative state with a large evangelical Christian and Mormon population, he’s come out, faces allegations that he tried to deport someone and has acknowledged being in a same-sex relationship with an immigrant. Babeu stepped down from his position as co-chair of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in Arizona after the allegations broke.

Sean Theriault, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, said Babeu faces difficulties because of the allegations against him in addition to being an openly gay candidate, but said Arizona has a surprising track record on LGBT issues and candidates.

“I’m not sure I would make the same assessment in other states, but Arizona Republicans have a record with the gays,” Theriault said. “At the end of his life, Sen. Barry Goldwater was a big proponent of gay rights and Jim Kolbe, a gay Republican, represented Gabby Giffords’s district before she did.”

When asked during the CNN interview whether he would become active with the Log Cabin Republicans, Babeu replied, “I’m sure.”

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin, said he has spoken with Babeu as he has with other Republicans seeking election to Congress.

“We had a relationship with the candidate and the campaign prior to him coming out, so there’s no change there,” Cooper said.

Cooper said his group doesn’t endorse candidates in the primary season. After the nominees are decided, Cooper said Log Cabin will announce its endorsements in the fall.

Asked where Babeu stands on LGBT issues, Cooper pointed to an editorial he wrote for The Washington Times. The piece says Babeu is “already making the case for equality in a way that resonates with Republicans” by being openly gay and notes his service in the armed forces while serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Chris Barron, chief strategist of the gay conservative group GOProud, said he isn’t aware of his organization having had any conversations with Babeu and said his campaign hasn’t reached out to the organization.

“Our efforts here have been on the presidential election, not on reaching out to congressional candidates,” Barron said. “We hear from candidates all the time, and it’s very early in the election season to be talking about House and Senate candidates, especially with a presidential election going on.”

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Victory Fund, said his organization hasn’t had any conversations with Babeu and that he wouldn’t be able to talk about any interactions the candidate would have with the organization at a later time.

“If we do work with him, we’d do it privately and we wouldn’t be able to talk about it in the press, but I can confirm that we have not talked to him,” Dison said.

Asked whether Babeu would be eligible for a Victory Fund endorsement, Dison pointed to the criteria on the organization’s website, which states candidates the organization supports must be openly LGBT; demonstrate community support and a realistic plan to win; show support for efforts to advance LGBT rights; and demonstrate support “to safeguard privacy and reproductive freedom.”

HRC declined to comment for this article. If the group is interacting with Babeu, it wouldn’t be the first time it has helped a public official with the coming out process. In 2004, then-New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey reportedly sought HRC’s advice when writing his coming out speech.

Kolbe said he wasn’t aware of contact between LGBT advocacy organizations and Babeu’s campaign.

“That’s a decision that those organization have to make and he has to make — whether he wants that coordination or not, or that assistance,” Kolbe said. “I think he’s quite capable of putting together a pretty substantial campaign on his own with the people and the volunteers that he’s got.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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