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THE NATION

Republican Moderate Kolbe Puts His House Seat in Play

November 24, 2005|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), one of a dwindling breed of moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill, announced Wednesday he would not seek reelection next year.

The only openly gay GOP member of Congress, Kolbe last year survived a difficult primary challenge from former state Rep. Randy Graf in which illegal immigration was the key issue. Graf charged that Kolbe and President Bush had failed to do enough to secure Arizona's border with Mexico.

He also attacked Kolbe for supporting a guest-worker program that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. for a certain period.

Graf announced last spring that he would challenge Kolbe again in the 2006 Republican primary. A spokesman for Graf said Wednesday that the prospect of another negative, costly campaign helped push Kolbe toward retirement.

"We turned up the heat on him," said Steve Aiken, Graf's campaign manager.

But Kolbe said in a statement that he made his decision "not out of despair or discouragement or even uncertainty about my political prospects for election."

Instead, he said, "I have concluded that it is time for the people of southern Arizona and me to walk down different paths."

Kolbe, 63, was first elected to the House in 1984. His district includes parts of Tucson and its northern suburbs.

His announcement surprised local political observers. "To my knowledge, there were no rumblings or rumors about this," said William Dixon, political science department head at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Noting that Kolbe was chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations and export financing, Dixon said Kolbe's departure would mean Arizona would lose "a powerful position."

A key question for the GOP is whether Kolbe's decision to quit the House presages a wave of retirements by senior Republicans -- especially among moderates whose clout has increasingly diminished within a party dominated by its conservative wing.

Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that with Bush's approval ratings sagging, the war in Iraq dragging on and ethical clouds hanging over several GOP leaders, "the political environment is such that we may see some more retirements" by Republicans.

The leaders of the GOP efforts to retain control of the House and Senate have said one of their goals is to keep retirements within their ranks to a minimum.

Burton said Kolbe's retirement would significantly improve the chances of a Democrat representing Arizona's 8th District. "This is a seat that is in play," he said.

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, remained confident that the GOP could retain the Republican-leaning district -- "as long as we can get the right candidate in there."

Kolbe said one reason he was making his announcement early in the election cycle was to ensure "that there will be adequate time for the many talented people who serve in Congress" to make their decisions on running.

Bush, who will visit Arizona early next week to spotlight efforts to control illegal immigration, carried the district with 53% of the vote in 2004 and with 50% in 2000.

In 1996, a national gay magazine had planned to identify Kolbe as a homosexual after he voted against federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Before the article appeared, he acknowledged his homosexuality.

The other two openly gay House members are Democrats Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Kolbe rarely discussed his sexual orientation, focusing instead on his advocacy of free trade with other nations. He was one of the GOP leaders who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement that passed during the Clinton administration in 1993.

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Times staff writer Johanna Neuman contributed to this report.

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