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Arizona, front and center

Influence in GOP exemplified by McCain, Kolbe speeches


Citizen Political Writer

PHILADELPHIA – U.S. Sen. John McCain’s prime-time TV call last night for Americans to support Texas Gov. George W. Bush capped an evening of Arizona marching its GOP stars onto the party’s big stage.

McCain, whose failed presidential bid made him familiar to nearly anyone who didn’t already know him as a senator and former Vietnam War POW, gave the keynote address of the Republican National Convention’s second night.

U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Tucson had his moment in the spotlight earlier in the evening, marking the first time an openly gay Republican addressed a nominating convention.

Even before more than 4,000 GOP delegates, alternates, dignitaries, lobbyists and loyalists converged here for this four-day event, Arizona’s schools superintendent, Lisa Graham Keegan, played a role in shaping the Republican platform’s position on education.

And education is Bush’s clear priority in his coming race against Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

Arizona’s influence started early here.

In the days before the convention, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl revealed that he was among the finalists considered as Bush’s running mate before former defense secretary Dick Cheney got the nod.

Why is Arizona, with just eight electoral votes, standing at the forefront of the Republican Party?

“I think it really speaks well of the leadership we have in Congress and in our state officials,” Kolbe said moments after McCain left the stage to a loud ovation.

“I think we can be very proud that Arizona has people like Jon Kyl and John McCain and Lisa Graham Keegan,” he said.

Kyl said the state can look to earlier leaders to understand how it has gained national political prominence.

“Arizona is a very dynamic state,” said Kyl. “There’s a lot happening here, and from time to time we’ve had influence beyond our size. You have to think back to Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes. You’d have to say that there’s an inordinate amount of political influence in the Republican Party.”

Goldwater, Arizona’s late Senate icon, has come to be known in the Republican Party as “father of modern conservatism,” and Rhodes, a longtime congressman, was the GOP convention chairman in 1976 and 1980.

Beyond Arizona’s historic role in GOP politics, the state is poised to become even more important player in the nation’s fastest-growing region, said Mike Hellon, Arizona’s Republican national committeeman.

“We’re somewhat of a bellwether for the region of the country that is growing,” he said.

Added Hellon, “There are only a few states that are gaining two new congressional districts in the next appropriations session, and we’re one of them.”

Because Arizona has prominent politicians, it has become a national focal point for issues that include improving education, dealing with sprawl, preserving the environment and dealing with border issues, said Nathan Sproul, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.

“I think it’s our good fortune that we have public servants who are so well qualified in their given fields,” he said.

He cited McCain’s defense expertise, Kolbe on free trade and Keegan on education.

Margaret Kenski, a Tucson-based GOP pollster, said Arizona’s officials have been cultivated in an environment conducive to changing political ideals and approaches. “We have a tradition here of independence, and I think we tend to send very good people to Congress who are independent thinkers,” she said.

Some wish Kolbe had used the g-word


Citizen Staff Writers

Just 25 feet from the podium where U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, the first openly gay politician to address the Republican National Convention, delivered his three-minute speech, Texas delegates concerned about his “sinful” ways removed their cowboy hats in silent prayer.

Kolbe also was silent about his sexual orientation.

The g-word was never mentioned in his speech, which focused on free trade.

Many gay Tucsonans found Kolbe’s silence on his homosexuality deafening and chided him for not following Gen. Colin Powell’s lead in calling for a more inclusive party – including the acceptance of gay Americans.

“He could have taken the opportunity, and he didn’t,” said Alan Storm, a member of the city’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Commission.

Kolbe had the chance twice yesterday.

At an earlier press conference at a mixer hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans and the Victory Fund, a bipartisan political organization that works for gay and lesbian rights and candidates who support them, Kolbe was introduced as “the openly gay congressman from Arizona.”

But when Kolbe took the microphone before a throng of news reporters, whose interest was piqued by rumblings of a planned walkout by members of the Texas delegation during his speech, the eight-term representative joked his way around any references to his sexual orientation.

“I never knew there was such interest in trade by the media,” Kolbe quipped in his opening remarks.

He also poked fun at the fact his mere presence was so controversial.

“I think it sends a real message of inclusiveness that Governor Bush would select me, because I had been a McCain supporter,” he said coyly.

Kolbe later said he avoided directly discussing gay issues because he wanted to keep the focus on the topic of his speech: free trade.

“I thought as a Log Cabin Republican it was important for me to be talking about that. We had a lot of media there, and I knew that if I had spoken about (gay issues) it would be the only thing they’d write about,” Kolbe told the Tucson Citizen in an interview.

But Kolbe said the topic of his speech – the only one of the evening not dealing with some element of American safety at home and abroad – is a conduit to acceptance.

“It’s not just about economic freedom,” he said of free trade agreements. “It’s about political freedom. They go hand in hand. When people are trading with each other, the ideas also are being traded. That is the message I want to bring to the American people tonight.”

Kolbe supporters and loyal GOP members praised the message and the messenger.

“I think he did a great job. You can judge him on his credentials,” said hotel executive Sherry Cavender, one of about 50 Kolbe supporters who watched the speech on TV last night at the Viscount Suite Hotel, 4855 E. Broadway Blvd.

“He doesn’t make an issue of the fact he’s gay. He does his job,” she said.

Others at the Viscount said the GOP took a step forward just by putting a gay member in the spotlight.

“I think he might have been asked to speak because he’s openly gay, because the Republicans want to show tolerance,” said Florence Hijazi, an art director for a local ad agency.

And the man who lobbied Texas Gov. George W. Bush to allow a gay speaker to take the stage at his nominating convention said Kolbe did what was expected.

“He wasn’t up there to talk about gay issues,” said Daniel Stewart, the mayor of Plattsville, N.Y., and a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, a 12,000-member group of gay Republicans. “He was up there to talk about trade. I think the most important thing was for him to get up there and talk about what he does for a living as a congressman. He works on trade.”

Kolbe has long been an advocate of free trade and helped push the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress almost a decade ago.

David Catania, the first openly gay Republican councilman in Washington, D.C., said he helped lobby Bush in April to allow Kolbe to speak at the convention to show that the Republican Party under his leadership would embrace gays and lesbians.

Catania said he never asked Kolbe to discuss gay issues if he got the chance to speak.

“This is consistent with what we believe. We believe we should be judged as individuals, and congressman Kolbe is exemplary in the field of trade. He’s an expert on the subject. It’s only fitting that he speaks on it, and the message it sends around the country is that this party is changing,” he said.

“It’s a slow process,” he acknowledged.

There are 18 openly gay delegates at the convention, up from seven in 1996 and probably the largest number ever, according to Log Cabin officials.

While Kolbe spoke at the downtown hotel where Arizona’s delegation is staying, four protesters held signs outside, criticizing the Log Cabin members for affiliating themselves with the GOP. More than 50 police officers formed a wall between them and the hotel entrance.

“The Republican Party is the most racist, homophobic party there is, and yet these gays are out supporting people who are totally against what they are,” said Drew Allen, a 39-year-old gay Philadelphia man.

In his speech at the convention, Kolbe explained that by trading with other nations, America helps create expectations for democracy around the globe.

“Through free trade, we have exported our principles as well as our products, sharing America’s freedom and democracy with the world,” he said.

Kolbe said America needs Bush’s leadership to ensure other nations, including China, open free trade with the United States and deal fairly so everyone can benefit.

“The current administration is failing American workers. They too often put politics ahead of good policy,” Kolbe said. “This is the first administration in a quarter century to lose the president’s crucial authority to negotiate trade agreements. They have squandered golden opportunities to open new markets for American goods and services. As a result, American workers have lost opportunities abroad while foreign companies have gained increased access to American markets.”

Kolbe’s speech was well received by both the Arizona delegation and the Log Cabin Republicans.

“Jim is such a bright guy and he has such an expertise in the area that he talked about,” said Mike Minnaugh, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. “People in Arizona are behind him all the way, and we’re going to do everything we can to send him back again.”

Kathleen Dunbar, a state representative, said Kolbe’s personality shined in his convention debut.

“He was wonderful. He was eloquent, and he had his smile, and it was everything about Jim Kolbe that we love.”

Stewart said Kolbe’s appearance was one step by the GOP toward truly welcoming gays and lesbians into its so-called “big tent.”

“Maybe somewhere down the line someone’s going to stand up there and talk about civil rights for gays and lesbians, but now is not the time,” he said. “This is a step in that direction. It’s one of many steps being taken this week which hopefully will culminate when the next convention rolls around in four years in a much more open atmosphere for gays and lesbians in the Republican Party.”

But not all viewers were impressed by Kolbe, or by what they see is a carefully scripted GOP convention that has given lead roles to women, minorities and moderates to try to lure votes, rather than reform its membership.

“Republicans are putting on a good show of putting a wide variety of people in front of the television cameras, but the rank and file of the party hasn’t changed their look or their politics,” said Steve Hall, board president of Wingspan, a local gay community center.

Gay groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans try to make the party more gay-friendly, but the GOP’s official platform remains opposed to many gay causes.

In 1996, the platform called for strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, but added: “We reject the distortion of those laws to cover sexual preference.”

That language was changed this year to read “we do not believe sexual preference should be given special legal protection or standing in the law.”

In 1996 and 2000, the GOP platform opposed gay marriages and argued that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.”

Kolbe, first elected to Congress in 1984, served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during the Vietnam War.

Colette A. Barajas, a candidate for District 13 in the Arizona House of Representatives, said Kolbe avoided mentioning his sexual orientation because doing so would have jeopardized his re-election. “He’s being politically smart,” she said.

Barajas, a lesbian, said she keeps her own sexual orientation out of her campaigning, unless she’s asked about it. “I’m not running as a lesbian. I’m running as someone who’s put 26 years into this community,” Barajas said.

But in Kolbe’s case, the ear of a national audience should have prompted him to be open about his sexuality, she said.

“If he had prostate cancer, wouldn’t he have taken the opportunity to talk about it? Absolutely. And would it have changed minds? Absolutely,” she said.

After years of speculation, Kolbe revealed his sexual orientation in 1996 before a national gay magazine could “out” him.


The benefit of boldness

Vicki Cox Golder, 49, is serving in Arizona’s delegation to the Republican National Convention. She will share her thoughts and impressions with the Tucson Citizen for the duration of this week’s activities in Philadelphia. Cox Golder is the first vice chair of Pima County Republican Party and president of Pima County Republican Women. This is her first time as a convention delegate.

Today we had our official delegate photo shoot, and, not being a shy person, I made a beeline and sat right down next to Cindy McCain in the front row. Afterward, I was thrilled to get a photo between Cindy and Governor Jane Hull.

I had a blast today at the PoliticalFest, where many exhibits are being displayed, but more important, political memorabilia are being sold. I was extremely focused and discriminating in my purchases, concentrating on items for my 7-year-old granddaughter, Victorie. Vendors weren’t in a negotiating mood today. Perhaps by tomorrow the prices will be more reasonable.

We had a lot of media attention once again focused on Arizona at tonight’s session, since both congressman Kolbe and Sen. McCain were speaking. You could hear a pin drop when McCain gave his speech. It has never been that quiet. Everyone hung on every word. He clearly struck a chord across this country with his message of pride in what democracy means to him.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: Gannett News Service

Rep. Jim Kolbe confined his speech to free trade.

The Associated Press

Arizona Sen. John McCain leaves the stage to a standing ovation from the Republican convention crowd after his speech last night.

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