Issue One honors the life and legacy of Representative James “Jim” Kolbe (R-AZ), an active member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of nearly 200 national public officials, united to fix America’s political system.
Kolbe passed away on December 3, 2022. He was 80 years old.
Often the bulwark between his own party and his constituents, Kolbe was a true reformer at heart—endeared by his fellow Navy servicemen, by fellow representatives in the Arizona state legislature, and by his peers in Congress. Even after he retired and left Congress, Kolbe continued to support initiatives that would strengthen our democracy and played an integral and active role in our ReFormers Caucus.
Born in 1942 near Chicago, Kolbe moved to Arizona at the age of 5. He would begin a career of service beginning in 1957, serving as a page for Senator Barry Goldwater through the United States Capitol Page School, where he would receive an early glimpse of his future working in Congress. After graduating in 1960, Kolbe would go on to receive his bachelor’s in political science from Northwestern University in 1965, and his Masters of Business Administration from Stanford in 1967. That same year, Kolbe would pledge to make the ultimate sacrifice, joining the U.S. Navy during the height of the Vietnam War. Kolbe concluded his active duty service in 1969, and would serve as a member of the Navy Reserves until 1977. Kolbe would be awarded a congressional medal for valor for his military service.
Following his service in Vietnam, Kolbe did not halt his public service. Kolbe served as special assistant to Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie from 1972-1973, which had a strong impact on Kolbe’s passion for the environment given Ogilvie’s establishment of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency—which became the model for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After returning to Arizona, Kolbe won election to the Arizona State Senate in 1977, serving 3 terms until 1982. During his time as a legislator in Arizona, Kolbe continued to pass legislation that helped to protect the natural environment of Arizona.
In 1985, Kolbe would begin his service to his home state of Arizona in the U.S. Congress, walking those same halls where he served as a page over two decades before. In 1996, Kolbe came out as gay, only the 2nd Republican ever to do so in Congress at the time—he would go on to be re-elected to five more terms after the announcement. During his 11 term career, Kolbe advocated for legislation that would strengthen federal ethics and campaign finance law, regulating and strengthening the Federal Election Commission (FEC), environmental protection, and international trade. Also during his congressional tenure, Kolbe came out as gay, only the second Republican ever to do so in Congress at the time.
Co-chairs of the ReFormers Caucus Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN) and Ambassador Tim Roemer, who had the pleasure of serving with Congressman Jim Kolbe during his congressional tenure, had this to say:
Rep. Zach Wamp: “Congressman Jim Kolbe was a warrior for the people of Arizona. His service in the US Congress was exemplary. I had the privilege of serving on the appropriations committee with him and observed firsthand what a student of the issues he was and how well he prepared for every opportunity to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten. Arizona and the nation are less one dedicated public servant with this loss.”
Amb. Tim Roemer: “Congressman Jim Kolbe was a Republican who reflected the values of Teddy Roosevelt with his dedication to the environment and Dwight Eisenhower with his military service in Vietnam. His legacy in Congress was of fierce independence, devotion to Arizona, and his deep integrity. Jim worked across the aisle whenever possible to protect democracy and the Constitution and was an integral contributor to the ReFormers Caucus, a bipartisan group of former members of Congress collaborating to improve representative government.”
Following his retirement from Congress, Kolbe remained active in service to his country, becoming one of the country’s foremost experts on trade and the environment, serving as a professor at the University of Arizona in the late 2000s, and on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, appointed by President Obama. As a member of the ReFormers Caucus, Kolbe added his name to numerous sign-on letters advocating for reforms to strengthen our campaign finance system, embrace bipartisanship and condemn divisive rhetoric, and to secure funding for our electoral system.
Jim Kolbe was a true patriot—serving his country behind the scenes and on the battlefield. His legacy as a dealmaker that did not put ideology before principle is a model that all current and aspiring public servants should emulate. The country and the ReFormers Caucus will miss a political pioneer.