Free Trade Expert Who Was Dedicated to Public Service

James Thomas Kolbe, MBA ’67

March 2023

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Late one evening in the summer of 1996, Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican from Arizona, returned to his office on Capitol Hill and sat alone with the lights off for three hours. He’d been on the phone with a reporter who knew he was gay and who planned to out him in a magazine article. In the darkness, Kolbe began making a list of all the people he would have to tell.

James Kolbe sitting on a chairPhoto: John Miller/AP

His colleagues, as it turned out, were overwhelmingly supportive. With the 40-year-old weight lifted off his shoulders, Kolbe returned his focus to what he loved most: being a public servant.

James Thomas Kolbe, MBA ’67, an expert on trade and foreign assistance and a principal visionary of free trade with Mexico, died December 3. He was 80.

Kolbe had served others since his boyhood days in Patagonia, Ariz., 18 miles from the Mexican border. On his family’s working guest ranch, he gave visitors horseback riding tours and listened closely to their dinnertime conversations about careers in journalism and politics. At 15, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a page for Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

He was elected to the Arizona state senate in 1976 and then to the U.S. House of Representatives 10 years later. He commuted between Washington, D.C., and Tucson every week for 22 years, spending Thursday through Monday connecting with people in his district. “Every time he talked about Arizona, Tucson, and the people he represented—I’ve never seen such devotion from a public servant,” says Kolbe’s husband, Hector Alfonso. 

“He’s one of the few politicians I ever knew that really, really enjoyed going door to door,” says Kolbe’s former chief of staff, Vera Badertscher. When his staff warned him away from hostile constituents, Kolbe insisted on meeting with them anyway, certain that if they could just talk and listen to one another, they’d see eye to eye. “I don’t know how he did it, but he did,” she says.

In Congress, he was known as a moderate Republican and a passionate voice on free trade, which he believed contributed to more peaceful relations between countries. In the early ’90s, then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich tapped Kolbe to secure bipartisan support for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Kolbe had championed since its inception. “President Clinton got it through Congress with Jim Kolbe’s help,” says Ambassador Carla Hills, ’55, the U.S. trade representative whose team negotiated NAFTA under President George H.W. Bush. 

Kolbe was reelected 11 times. In his final three terms, he served as a subcommittee chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, where he oversaw foreign spending—billions of dollars in foreign aid allocated by the U.S. State Department—and negotiated presidential requests for the same.

“He took political risk, bringing people together for legislative solutions that he then had to run reelection on and survive,” says former staffer Sean Mulvaney.

After Kolbe retired from Congress in 2006, he taught at the University of Arizona’s law school, was a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and co-chaired the Bretton Woods Committee, a nonprofit devoted to international economic and financial cooperation.  

In addition to his husband, Kolbe is survived by his sisters, Beth Kolbe and Ginny Rousseau.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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