The Reluctant Warrior

Article excerpt

The only openly gay Republican in Congress, Jim Kolbe prefers to work behind the scenes for gay rights

At the Republican national convention in Philadelphia in July, Jim Kolbe was given a coveted prime-time slot on the podium. The only openly gay GOP member of Congress used the rare opportunity to reach a national television audience to advocate for what has become his signature issue: free international trade.

The three-minute speech pleased almost no one. The party's antigay delegates held a silent prayer vigil on the convention floor to protest George W. Bush's decision to give a gay man a speaking slot, waving signs declaring THERE IS A WAY OUT. Gay activists complained that by addressing the convention, Kolbe condoned the antigay planks in the party's platform. Even gay Republican leaders, who consider Kolbe a hero and had lobbied hard for his selection, whispered among themselves that he had failed to work any references to gay rights into his remarks.

But for Kolbe, that was precisely the point. The chairman of a powerful House appropriations subcommittee, he has earned the respect of his colleagues for his strict devotion to the concerns of Arizona's fifth congressional district. "Frankly, I was surprised I was asked to speak," he said in an interview with The Advocate, his first since publicly identifying himself as gay in 1996. "It's nice that gay Republicans think of me as a leader, but Bush asked me to speak about trade, which is my area of expertise. I was not asked to speak about gay rights, and that's not something my district is particularly interested in hearing about."

Despite his growing national stature within the GOP and a substantial financial campaign chest, Kolbe may have good reason to be worried about voters closer to home. The eight-term congressman faces a tough campaign against a well-financed foe, George Cunningham, in an increasingly Democratic district that encompasses Tucson and rural areas around it.

"There are very few people who will say anything negative [about my orientation], but we know from our polls there are some older conservative men who will express it when they go to the polls," Kolbe says. "One percent here or there can make the difference. It doesn't help that Bush is doing more poorly in Arizona than expected, which will keep Republican voters at home."

Kolbe may be overestimating the threat of antigay votes in his district, says Peter Goudinoff, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona who served with Kolbe in the state legislature. "There is a rural population that is Mormon and traditionally very conservative," he says. "The fear is that someone could mobilize a homophobic vote. But I don't see that materializing. His Democratic opponent knows it would blow up in his face if he played that card. In essence, I don't see sexual orientation as a factor at all."

The fear of inspiring an antigay backlash makes Kolbe especially cautious when addressing gay issues. Over the past two years Kolbe, through his aides, has turned down numerous interview requests from The Advocate. Kolbe's chief of staff, Fran McNaught, said earlier this year that if it were up to her, Kolbe would "never" grant an interview to this magazine. Reached at home in late September, Kolbe finally agreed to talk, commenting that his staff had advised him against it.

Kolbe is a reluctant torchbearer when it comes to gay issues. Some of his reluctance stems from an aversion to talking about his personal life, but some of it comes as a result of the opposition he faces from his own party. "In some ways the Republicans have not come as far as the Democrats," Kolbe admits. "But I think we do better in treating gay people as individuals rather than as members of special interest groups that need special treatment."

That stance often puts Kolbe in an awkward position when it comes to aggressively lobbying his House colleagues on hate-crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban antigay bias in the workplace. …