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Jim Kolbe dies at 80

Former Ariz. congressman first openly gay Republican House member

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Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) speaks at a press conference on Feb. 28, 2013 for the filing of an amicus brief supporting the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Former Republican Congressman James (Jim) Thomas Kolbe, who represented Southern Arizona in Congress for 22 years, died Saturday of a stroke at the age of 80 his husband Hector Alfonso confirmed to Arizona media outlets.

“He belongs to so many people,” his husband said through tears on Saturday. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff until sunset Sunday in honor of the former congressman. In a series of tweets the Arizona governor lauded Kolbe’s record of public service.

Kolbe was the first openly serving gay Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives having served from 1985 to 2007.  During his 22-year tenure he served as chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the House Appropriations Committee.

Former congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In 1996, Kolbe held a press conference and outed himself after his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act. This, according to political journalist Jake Tapper, was owed to the fact that Kolbe was under the impression he was about to be outed by a gay publication.

Addressing a gathering of Log Cabin Republicans and other gay Republicans in 1997, he said he didn’t want to be a poster child for the gay movement.

“Being gay was not — and is not today — my defining persona,” Kolbe said during his first speech as an openly gay GOP lawmaker. He also sat on the national advisory board of the Log Cabin Republicans.

In 2013, however, Kolbe was a signatory to an amicus brief in support of overturning California’s Proposition 8.

In a private ceremony in 2013, after being together for eight years, Kolbe and Alfonso were married.

Alfonso, a Panamanian native who came to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in special education, had been a teacher for two decades. The couple’s nuptials were held at a private event at the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue.

“Two decades ago, I could not have imagined such an event as this would be possible,” Kolbe told the Washington Blade in an interview in May 2013. “A decade ago I could not imagine that I would find someone I could be so compatible with that I would want to spend the rest of my life with that person. So, this is a very joyous day for both of us.”

The couple had to endure a year-long separation when Alfonso returned to Panama while immigration issues were being sorted out, although he was granted U.S. residency, also known as a green card.

Kolbe also battled his friend and fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the repeal of the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred military service by gay and lesbian Americans. He repeatedly co-sponsored a bill to scrap the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at odds with others in his party over the issue.

After he left Congress he continued to be active in Republican politics in 2012 endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his race for the presidency against then incumbent President Barack Obama.

In an interview with the Blade at the time, Kolbe responded to the anti-gay language in the draft version of the Republican Party platform. In addition to endorsing a Federal Marriage Amendment, the platform criticized the Obama administration for dropping defense of DOMA in court and judges for “re-defining marriage” in favor of gay couples.

Kolbe predicted the 2012 Republican platform will be the last one to include such language.

“That’ll be the last time that will be in the Republican Party platform,” Kolbe said. “It won’t be there four years from now. It’s got its last gasp. I don’t believe it’ll be there four years from now; I wish it weren’t there now, but I don’t believe it will be four years from now.”

The issue over the rights of same-sex couples to marry ended with Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644, the landmark civil rights case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Just this week prior to his death, the Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate by a vote of 61-36.

That legislation requires the federal government to recognize a marriage between two individuals if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed and guarantee that valid marriages between two individuals are given full faith and credit, regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity or national origin. It is expected to pass the House again this week after which it heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.

Early in his career, Kolbe in 1976 ran for a seat in the Arizona Senate in the Tucson-Pima County district and defeated a one-term Democrat. In mid-1982, he resigned from the state Senate to run in the newly created Arizona’s 5th U.S. congressional district, but lost to Democrat Jim McNulty.

He ran again in 1984 winning the seat that he went to hold for over two decades.

According to his biography Kolbe was born in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, but when he was five, his family moved to a ranch in rural Santa Cruz County, Arizona. It was there he attended Patagonia Elementary School and Patagonia Union High School, but graduated from the U.S. Capitol Page School in 1960 after serving for three years as a Senate Page for Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

He matriculated first at Northwestern University and then at Stanford University earning a master’s degree in economics. During the Vietnam era from 1965 to 1969, he served in the U.S. Navy, including a tour in Vietnam as a member of the Navy’s “Swift Boat” force. 

After military service Kolbe served as a special assistant to Republican Illinois Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie. He then moved back to Arizona settling in Tucson where he worked in business.

Accolades for the former congressman included many from Arizona political and business fields of endeavor.

“Pima County and southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson said in a statement.

Matt Gress, who was recently elected to the Arizona Legislature, called Kolbe a political pioneer.

“Today, because of Jim Kolbe, being a member of the LGBT community and serving in elected office has become irrelevant,” he said in a statement.

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Congress

Justice Department eyes criminal probe of Santos’ campaign finances

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office has not commented

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U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (Screen shot/CSPAN)

The Justice Department has asked the Federal Election Commission to hold off on law enforcement activity over Republican U.S. Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) as federal prosecutors conduct their own criminal probe into the congressman’s campaign finances.

The news, first reported Friday by the Washington Post, was confirmed Saturday by the Washington Blade via a Justice Department source familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak with the press.

The attorney who filed the FEC complaint against Santos previously told the Blade that the agency would yield to the Justice Department if prosecutors initiate a criminal probe — indicating that in Washington the matter would be overseen by the Department’s Public Integrity Section. 

The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James are also looking into Santos’ financial conduct, while the congressman has simultaneously been enmeshed in controversies over his compulsive lying, having fabricated virtually every part of his life and identity. 

As of this publication, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office has not responded to a request seeking comment. McCarthy, along with the rest of Republican leadership in the chamber, have addressed the controversies only minimally, telling reporters they have no plans to ask Santos to step down until or unless criminal proceedings against him are underway.

Santos voted for McCarthy’s bid for speakership in each of the 15 ballots that were required to unite the House GOP conference behind him due to the objections of a couple dozen ultra-conservative members who were able to delay the vote and extract painful concessions because of the party’s narrow control of the House majority.

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Gallego announces run for Sinema’s Senate seat

Sets up potential three-way race if incumbent seeks reelection

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona announced plans to run for the Senate in 2024, setting up a possible three-way race if newly declared independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema decides to seek reelection for her seat representing the Grand Canyon State next year.

Gallego disclosed his forthcoming senatorial bid on Monday, sharing a video on Twitter in which the congressman accused Sinema of breaking her promises to Arizonans in favor of advancing the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions.

A spokesperson for Sinema’s office declined to comment. On Friday, Sinema told Arizona Radio Station KTAR: “I’m not really thinking or talking about the election right now, although others are,” adding, I’m staying focused on the work.”

If elected, Gallego, whose announcement video was recorded in English and Spanish, would become Arizona’s first Latino senator.

Sinema became the first bisexual member and, after Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the second LGBTQ woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in 2012 and 2018, respectively.

Last year, she was widely credited for her role in the Senate’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, hailed as the most significant pro-LGBTQ legislative achievement since the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

However, since her election to the Senate, Sinema has often earned the ire of many of her Democratic colleagues for stymying progressive legislation by refusing to abandon the filibuster and tacking to the right on fiscal issues.

The Arizona Democratic Party executive board voted to censure Sinema last January for voting with Republicans to preserve the filibuster at the expense of a voting rights bill.

On Dec. 9, Sinema announced her decision to switch her party affiliation from Democrat to independent, pledging not to caucus with Republicans and promising that “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior.”

Sinema has also come under fire during her tenure in the Senate for taking positions seen as favorable to the drug industry and Wall Street, seemingly in exchange for financial backing from those and other affiliated interests.

For instance, in 2021 The Guardian reported that “In the current Congress, Big Pharma appears to have zeroed in on Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat from Arizona, as one of their lead obstructionists to help kill or gut the Democrats’ drug pricing plan. In the 2020 election cycle, pharmaceutical political action committees suddenly funneled more money to her than they did the whole six years she served in the US House.”

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George Santos: Same-sex couples and parents undermine families

Santos’s comments came during an interview in 2020

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U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) (Public domain photo)

Two years ago, embattled gay Republican U.S. Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) told the host of a conservative YouTube show that same-sex couples and parents are harmful to children and undermine the family.

Children who are raised by single parents or gay and lesbian couples tend to grow up “troubled,” Santos said during the hour-long interview on “Indivisible with John Stubbins.” Clips from the conversation were excerpted and shared Thursday on Twitter by Patriot Takes.

“The family unit has been under attack for decades in different ways,” Santos told Stubbins. “The flavor of the decade is same-sex couples. They’re teaching in schools that kids don’t need a mommy and a daddy, you can can have two mommies and two daddies. That’s an attack on the family unit.”

“I think that’s a little much for kids,” the congressman added.

According to the show’s YouTube page, “Indivisible with John Stubbins” “endorses” My Pillow founder and far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell and has a modest 3,690 subscribers. The video featuring Santos’ interview earned six likes and no comments.

Also on Thursday, Reuters reported claims by former acquaintances that Santos was a drag performer in his native Brazil 15 years ago. Despite the online circulation of photos appearing to show the congressman dressed in drag, Santos tweeted that the reports were untrue.

The matter earned significant media attention given Santos’ far-right positions on LGBTQ issues, consistent with comments from his interview on “Indivisible,” as well as his allyship with the most extreme anti-LGBTQ members of the House Republican Caucus.

Conservative Republicans, including these lawmakers, have increasingly attacked drag events and performances, accusing hosts and participants of harming children or facilitating the sexual abuse or exploitation of minors.

Meanwhile, Santos has been buffeted by a host of other scandals, beginning with reporting last month that revealed he fabricated practically everything about his life and identity. Santos also faces investigations by multiple law enforcement agencies over allegations of financial malfeasance and violations of campaign finance laws.

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