Long-Serving Republican Lawmaker Dies at Age 80


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A long-serving moderate Republican lawmaker who represented a district that included Tucson, Arizona, for 11 terms has passed away at the age of 80. Reports noted that Jim Kolbe, an advocate for liberalized immigration rules and free trade, served in Washington for 22 years.

“Pima County and Southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Sharon Bronson, the Pima County Board of Supervisors chair, said Saturday in a statement announcing his death. “Whether when he was in the state Legislature or in Congress, the man from Patagonia always acted in the best interests of Southern Arizona.

“Jim was old school Republican in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower – a friend of business and the environment,” Bronson continued. “The preservation and conservation of beloved wild spaces and cultural treasures like Canoa Ranch and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area are the result in large part to Jim’s leadership while in the Congress.”

Outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey (R) remembered and praised Kolb in a Twitter post on Saturday, describing him as “a true elder statesman and political powerhouse.”

“Congressman Jim Kolbe never wavered in his responsibility to our state and nation,” Ducey said. “We are deeply saddened by his passing.”


USA Today noted further:

Kolbe entered Congress after the 1984 elections, when President Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism was winning over some Democrats, and left in 2007 as partisanship deepened, making it more difficult for Republicans to compete in southern Arizona. 

He departed Washington out of sync with the GOP in important ways: He was gay, supported abortion rights and a guest-worker program to help manage the growing restlessness about the nation’s immigration system. 

Kolbe spent his career after Congress working for think tanks, consulting firms, and teaching. He remained a Republican but more often lent a bipartisan appearance to Democratic causes. 

He was named as an adviser on trade issues by then-President Barack Obama, and he supported Andrei Cherny, a Democrat, over Ducy in the 2010 Arizona treasurer’s campaign. He then withdrew as campaign chair of the top Republican seeking his old House seat after he left Congress, which led to then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, winning reelection in 2008.


During then-President Donald Trump’s term, Kolb switched his party affiliation in 2018 from Republican to Independent.

“People are making a bigger deal about (the voter registration change) than I have,” Kolbe told The Arizona Republic in 2020, when he also endorsed Joe Biden for president over Trump. “I’ve always been fairly independent in my thinking. It doesn’t change my values.”

“Kolbe was born in Evanston, Illinois, but raised in Patagonia. His family cared about politics and it became a passion for Jim and for his older brother, John Kolbe, who became a high-profile political columnist for the Phoenix Gazette and The Arizona Republic until his death from cancer in 1998,” USA Today noted further.

“Kolbe was a page in Washington for then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., from 1958 until 1960. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in 1965 and a master’s in business administration from Stanford University two years later,” the paper reported.

He spent two years of active combat duty with the U.S. Navy as the Vietnam War raged, remaining in the Naval Reserves until 1977. When his active duty tour ended in 1969, he went to work as a special assistant to the Illinois governor on capital programs as well as the Illinois Building Authority.

He would return to Arizona to work in real estate before getting the bitten by the politics bug and running for elected office in 1976, where he won the first of three terms in the Arizona Senate.

“He quickly established himself there as a moderate with votes to support the Equal Rights Amendment and a bill to offer in-state college tuition for certain immigrants residing in Arizona,” USA Today reported.

Though Kolbe and several other Republicans switched party affiliation during Trump’s tenure, the outlet also reported that Democrats did so as well, with many flocking to the GOP instead, including West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey.

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