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`It’s a relief,’ Kolbe says

NOTE: SIDEBAR/STATEMENT/FIVE PHOTO MUGS: Kolbe, McCain, Motta, Miller and Ewing

The 12-year congressman reveals he is homosexual

“That I am a gay person has never affected the way that I legislate. The fact that I am gay has never, nor will it ever, change my commitment to represent all the people of Arizona’s Fifth District.’

And with that statement yesterday, U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, acknowledged publicly for the first time that he is homosexual.

Kolbe, in a telephone interview with the Tucson Citizen last night, said he felt forced to reveal his sexual orientation because The Advocate, a national gay magazine, was to “out’ him in a story to be published later this month.

Outing is the practice of publicly announcing the sexual orientation of someone who has not chosen to do so.

Asked why he was revealing his sexual orientation at this time, after 12 years in Congress, Kolbe replied: “Others made the decision for me. They decided this was the time. I decided that I would prefer to make this public on my own terms, rather than have others do it for me.’

Although Kolbe felt compelled to issue the extraordinary announcement, he candidly conceded that he now feels “like a great weight’ has been lifted off his shoulders.

“Sure, it is a relief to have this out in the open,’ he said. “I am content with the decision I have made. I have probably had better conversations with family and friends in the last 48 hours than in the last 48 years. In my family, these kinds of things were simply not discussed.

“The most important thing in all of this is that I have been in touch with family and friends, and the support they have shown has been remarkable.’

Kolbe – known for leading the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and for bills that expanded Saguaro National Park – does not believe public knowledge of his sexual orientation will have any impact on his competence as a lawmaker.

“I don’t think it will affect my ability to be a legislator,’ he said. “Thus far there has been a tremendously positive response from my colleagues.’

Asked if he believed there would be political fallout from his announcement, Kolbe said he would leave that speculation to the news media, which he expects “will pontificate’ widely on the subject.

He said he is comfortable with what has happened and is willing to let the chips fall where they may.

“I believe the voters of the 5th District are fair-minded and will judge me on the representation I have given them,’ said the 54-year-old congressman.

His district includes much of Tucson, the retirement community of Green Valley and rural areas of southern and eastern Arizona.

While political analysts believe revelations about Kolbe’s sexuality can do nothing but harm him politically – particularly in rural areas and among the Christian right – he still will be heavily favored to win re-election.

Kolbe has easily won five successive congressional elections and is a proven vote-getter among Democrats and independents. His competition this year does not appear formidable.

His only opposition in the Republican primary next month comes from Joe Sweeney, a perennial candidate whom he defeated by a 4-to-1 ratio two years ago.

Mort Nelson, the lone Democrat running for Congress in District 5, is a retired optometrist who has never held elected office and recently lost a bid for a seat on the board of directors of Sun City Vistoso.

The “outing’ of Kolbe first occurred on a gay radio program broadcast July 21 in New York.

Radical gay activists have undertaken to identify Kolbe as homosexual after his vote July 12 for the Defense of Marriage Act, which they view as a litmus-test issue.

The act, approved by the House, 342-67, bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages and authorizes states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states.

Kolbe maintains his vote on that issue was not hypocritical and was consistent with his conservative philosophy. He said he voted for the act so the issue of same-sex marriage could be determined in the states.

“My vote on DOMA is defensible on the merits,’ he said. “My record on human rights and individual rights is strong. I have always had a strong abhorrence for discrimination of any kind, whether it’s based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.’

While Kolbe indicated his strong opposition to the practice of outing, he said the best option for him was to acknowledge his homosexuality and move on.

“I am not bitter,’ he said. “I do think it is unfortunate that people feel the need to make the private lives of elected officials public.’

Kolbe, a Vietnam War veteran and graduate of Northwestern and Stanford universities, served three terms in the Arizona Senate before losing a cliffhanger to Democrat Jim McNulty in his first bid for Congress in 1992.

Two years later, Kolbe came back to oust McNulty, and has won re-elections handily since.

Kolbe, whose family is from Patagonia, was married from 1977 to 1992 to Sarah Dinham, a University of Arizona professor of educational psychology.

In a column published today in The Arizona Republic, Kolbe’s brother John Kolbe, a longtime political columnist in Phoenix, wrote:

“To his family, it doesn’t come as much of a shock, although he has lived discreetly and never discussed it with us until the revelation became imminent in the past few days (a reluctance that reflects as much on us as on him, and saddens me immeasurably). In a living, boisterous but ultimately very private family like ours, painful truths are sometimes understood but unspoken.

“In his own personal journey to self-understanding, which has been under way since adolescence, Jim, like so many others, grappled with this reality until, during a 15-year marriage to an enormously bright, talented and caring woman we all came to love, he began to realize that `something was missing.’

“The rumor has cropped up repeatedly,’ the column continued, “usually in the months before an election, and he never denied it. To friends and confidants, his empathy for gay issues, his un-Republican votes and his professional friendships sent clear signals.

“But neither did he confirm the rumor, both for the obvious political reason that it is hardly a boon to a political career and because of a simple, if naive, belief that his private life was his own.’

SIDEBAR: He’ll win re-election – but `outing’ will hurt, most say


Though rumors about U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe’s sexual orientation have floated for years in insider circles, many people were surprised yesterday when he became the fourth openly gay member of Congress.

And many people asked didn’t think it would significantly hurt him politically.

“What a shock! I knew he was not married but this is a surprise,’ said one Green Valley resident who did not want her name used.

Lillian Stephens, 76, a registered independent who has voted for Kolbe every time he’s been up for re-election, said she was “very much surprised’ to learn her congressman is homosexual.

His closest Republican colleagues stood up for him. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Kolbe “has always had and will continue to have my full support.’

“As his friend, I ask all Arizonans to remember that Jim, although he is a public servant, retains the right to some privacy in his personal life . . . . I hope he will receive from all of us the courtesy and decency with which he has always treated us.’

Only the camp of failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan – who hammered hard on homosexuality during runs for the White House – said Kolbe should resign over the announcement.

“I think he probably should step down,’ said Bob Motta, Pima County coordinator for Buchanan’s campaign. “It’s the moral issue. We’re a display case for the rest of the world, and I think it’s important to have traditional values.

`Not a moral lifestyle’

“I don’t think the gay lifestyle is a moral lifestyle.’

Motta said Kolbe’s support of benefits for domestic partners, arts funding and abortion rights were examples of shaky moral ground.

Motta’s view seemed in the minority as the news got out. And some Kolbe supporters said they knew how heavily the decision to come out must have weighed on his mind.

Ron St. John, who had planned to run as an openly gay Republican candidate for the state Legislature, said the announcement would be a positive change for his friend.

“Every two years when he was up for election, somebody was threatening to out him, whether it was a militant gay activist or a right-wing nut. I think it’s good just to get it over with. Now he can say, `Look, I’m the same Jim. Let’s get on with important matters.’

“I think it’s good for the party to realize there are gays and lesbians in the Republican Party,’ added St. John, who is an executive aide to Republican Pima County Supervisor Mike Boyd.

Has top approval rating

St. John said Boyd’s office just completed a district poll and that the politician with the highest approval rating – 84 percent – was Kolbe.

“Nobody even comes close to that. He’s everywhere all the time, and he comes back to the district and listens to what people have to say. There will be a few people upset, but . . . those same folks that are upset are the same ones upset that he’s pro-choice (on abortion),’ St. John said.

Robert Bray, a Tucson native who is spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, based in San Francisco, said, “Being openly gay or lesbian should not be the political kiss of death in the 1990s. If anything, voters should be pleased their congressman is being honest and open with them.’

Not unique to D.C. figures

Two Massachusetts Democrats, Barney Frank and Gerry Studds, and Wisconsin Republican Steve Gunderson are openly gay congressmen.

Other congressmen, such as Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Sonny Bono, have family members who are openly homosexual.

“It simply should not matter. I think voters are more concerned about what he (Kolbe) does in Congress that benefits their lives, their educations and their tax rates than they are about what he does in his private life,’ Bray said.

Kolbe’s announcement came after a militant gay magazine threatened to expose him after his vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to not recognize same-sex marriages made in other states and prevents federal recognition of such unions.

GOP has a `big tent’

Dodie Londen, chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said, “I think there will be some people who will be upset because we have a lot of people who are very conservative in this state who don’t want any of that to come close to them. But the way I look at it, the Republicans have a big tent and can accept whatever we need to.

“I’m not alarmed at all by any of that. He’s been voting the right way for a long time, and we need to look at that and not at his lifestyle.’

She said she sympathized with the painful choice Kolbe had to make.

Londen said given southern Arizona’s more moderate political leanings, she did not expect the announcement to cause many problems.

McCain agreed. “The people of the 5th Congressional District of Arizona could have no more able and decent advocate than Jim Kolbe. I am confident that they will not allow gossip or thoughtless sensationalism to deprive them of the services of this good man,’ he wrote in a prepared statement to reaffirm his support.

Deception troubles some

Charmaine Romero, a caretaker for an East Side property, said she met Kolbe at a restaurant once and he introduced a woman he was with as his girlfriend.

“That bothers me that he acted like something he wasn’t,’ she said. But for candidates who are open about their lifestyle, she said, “I don’t agree with it myself, but we all have the right to our own opinions and philosophies.’

Gloria Martinez, a nine-year Sahuarita resident, said, “I think what anybody does in their own privacy is their own business.’

Gertrude Grant of Green Valley said she voted for Kolbe before and that his sexual orientation makes no difference to her.

Not going to `persecute’ him

“He’s a good congressman. I’m not going to persecute him because of his lifestyle,’ Grant said. “He holds town meetings and at times he listens to the people. At times, though, I think he listens more to the Republican majority in the House, and I prefer for him to be more independent.’

Lillian Fletcher, a housekeeper who is registered as a Democrat, said she voted for Kolbe before and it wouldn’t bother her to vote for a homosexual candidate if she were comfortable with his performance. “That’s his personal life. It has nothing to do with the kind of job he does for us.’

Those comments were echoed in at least 40 phone calls made to random voters by reporters last night.

Tucson Mayor George Miller said, “As far as I’m concerned, his own personal business does not detract from the efforts he’s done for this community. I’ve worked very closely with him and I’ve always found him to be very responsive to the needs of the community.’

Many not surprised

Di Ann Ewing, a former coordinator of Concerned Women for America of Arizona, a group that supports traditional family values, said she wasn’t surprised by Kolbe’s announcement. She heard through word of mouth about a decade ago he was gay.

She found his homosexuality “disturbing’ when she first found out. Asked if it bothered her, Ewing said, “I think my lifestyle is better.’

She tried to find another Republican candidate to support, but found no viable opponents. Today, she supports Kolbe, especially his fiscal stance, but believes he is too liberal on social issues and does not like his pro-choice position.

She said he must be pretty comfortable to make this announcement just before facing re-election.

Kolbe is facing limited primary opposition from perennial Republican candidate Joe Sweeney, whom he trounced with 80 percent of the vote last go-round, and will face Democrat Mort Nelson, a political newcomer, in November.

Probably will hurt him

Lillian Stephens said although she likes Kolbe’s politics and sexual orientation is someone’s own business, she was “almost certain’ that his announcement will create problems for him.

“It’s just the nature of the general social structure,’ she said.

Tucsonan Maria Tevis, a registered Republican in Kolbe’s district, also believes his coming out will hurt him politically.

“I think it will affect him because probably a lot of men in office aren’t (homosexual). They might be bothered by it. But I don’t see why it should bother anybody.

“I think it should be something that’s private. But somehow these things leak out and people hurt other people by using statements like that,’ said Tevis, who explained she judges her elected officials on their honesty and beliefs, not their sexual orientation.


Here is the statement released yesterday by U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe:

Twenty years ago, when I first sought public office, I made a decision that my commitment to civic involvement would mean my public life would have to come ahead of my personal and private life. I have, in the intervening 20 years, sought to fulfill my public responsibilities in a manner that benefits all those I have represented in either the Arizona Legislature or in Congress. I will continue that commitment as long as I am in public service.

I look back on what I have accomplished for southern Arizona since I came to Congress nearly 12 years ago, and I am proud of the record I have compiled. I have led the fight to keep Arizona and America’s economy strong and growing by opening new markets around the world; NAFTA was the capstone of this vision. I have fought to lower the crushing tax burden on our families by reducing taxes. I have worked for six years as a member of the Budget Committee to achieve a balanced budget so we can relieve our children of a crushing national debt. I have worked to keep Arizona’s reputation as the astronomy capital of the world by assuring that new advances in astronomy will go forward here. I have argued and won funds to protect our natural heritage, including the expansion of Saguaro National Park. And, just this week we achieved the most sweeping, most important reform of welfare in decades. There is, of course, much more, but this is a record I can point to with justifiable pride.

I am just as proud of my record in the area of human rights and individual rights. I abhor, and vigorously oppose discrimination in the work place based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation – any treatment that is not based on merit. I fought to repeal the provision in law which requires an automatic discharge of any armed service member who is HIV-positive. I support health benefits for domestic partners.

I also believe that if the citizens of Hawaii believe it to be in their public interest to permit same-sex marriages, they should be permitted to do so. By the same token, other states – as Arizona has done – should be allowed to define marriage differently, and not be required to accept the definition adopted by others. It is for this reason that I voted for the so-called Defense of Marriage Act when it was before the House a few weeks ago.

Now, however, there are some who have decided that their disagreement with this vote warrants their making public information about my private life – information they may have heard second- or third-hand about my sexual orientation.

That I am a gay person has never affected the way I legislate. The fact that I am gay has never, nor will it ever, change my commitment to represent all the people of Arizona’s Fifth District. I am the same person, one who has spent many years struggling to relieve the tax burden for families, balance the budget for our children’s future, and to improve the quality of life we cherish in southern Arizona. I intend to continue that mission if the voters of the Fifth District, in their wisdom, decide that I should represent them in the 105th Congress.

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