For a hardcore anti-immigrant pol like Sheriff Paul Babeu, who refers to the undocumented simply as "illegals," the support of pro-"illegals" former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe might seem odd. But Kolbe and Babeu share a great deal when it comes to their personal histories — far beyond the fact that both men are openly gay.
Kolbe, who served 22 years in the U.S. Congress before his retirement in 2006, once represented what is now southern Arizona's Second Congressional District, which encompasses much of Tucson. A moderate Republican and a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, women's reproductive rights and free trade, Kolbe is what many tuskers in more conservative parts of the state, like Maricopa County, would call a RiNO, or Republican in Name Only.
Babeu, by contrast, is a far-right darling, an oft-seen talking head on Fox News, who vilifies President Barack Obama and bashes Mexicans with aplomb. A candidate in the GOP primary for Arizona's First Congressional District, Babeu wants to seal the border and labels as "amnesty" any pathway to legal residency or citizenship for the undocumented. To give you an example of how extreme he is, the sheriff recently denounced as "absolute lawlessness" the U.S. Department of Homeland Security' designation of schools, hospitals, and churches as "sensitive locations" to be entered for immigration-enforcement purposes only with the approval of a supervisor or because of exigent circumstances.
And yet, on August 8, the Babeu camp issued a press release touting the endorsement of the 74-year-old Kolbe, who works as a senior policy adviser for the nonprofit German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that promotes "transatlantic cooperation." Kolbe is quoted in the release as calling Babeu "an outstanding sheriff" and "fighter for Arizona," whose expertise on border security "is sought by national leaders, Congress and the news media."
Babeu responds in the statement with similarly laudatory comments, saying Kolbe "is still loved by so many for his service and commitment" and that "I'm honored by his support and proud of his friendship."
Indeed, Kolbe's support has been substantial and stretches back to Babeu's ill-fated run for Congress in 2012, when Kolbe first lent Babeu his endorsement, donated money to his campaign, and held a fundraiser for him.
Politics aside, the biography of each man echoes the other. Both men are once-closeted gay Republicans who were forced "out" by virtue of their own hypocrisies. Both have been singed by sex scandals in the past, and both are in committed relationships with Latino men much younger than they are.
It was to Kolbe's scandals and to his ideological wishy-washiness that a spokesman for Wendy Rogers —Babeu's nemesis in the now five-person battle royale for the GOP nod in CD1 — referred when New Times asked for a reaction to the endorsement.
"Paul Babeu now — completely — has lost his case for being a 'conservative' by accepting Jim Kolbe's endorsement," Shane Wikfors writes in an e-mail. "The former southern Arizona congressman earned an absolutely dismal lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.
"And Kolbe limboed his way out of not one, but two sex scandals dealing with congressional pages," Wikfors added. "If #SextingSheriff had been looking to dodge his own personal and ethical problems, pursuing a Kolbe endorsement has only underscored his depredations and fueled his tailspin."
Many consider the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, to be the gold standard when it comes to assessing a politician's conservative bona fides. Its website scores Kolbe's lifetime rating at 73.41 in the year he left office — the lowest among Arizona Republicans of recent memory. By contrast, U.S. Senator John McCain's lifetime score for 2015 was 81.67, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake's 93.73.
Republican-lite? That's Kolbe in a nutshell. In 2010, none other than President Obama appointed Kolbe to the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, a group tasked with offering policy advice on trade matters. And according to his LinkedIn profile and several online bios, Kolbe was awarded the "Order of the Aztec" (actually, the Order of the Aztec Eagle) by the president of Mexico in 2007 for "distinguished service in promoting United States-Mexico bilateral cooperation." (Documents online in Spanish from the Mexican government confirm this.)
As if either one of those honors wasn't enough to make a red-state Republican's head explode, in April 2013, Kolbe testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a comprehensive immigration-reform package sponsored by the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators that unsuccessfully sought to break the logjam on immigration in Congress.
In his remarks, Kolbe urged the Senate to expand a provision on family reunification to apply to gay families as well. He cited his own experience with his long-time partner, Hector Alfonso, a native of Panama, whom Kolbe wed in May 2013. Kolbe, then 70, told the Judiciary Committee that Alfonso, then in his mid-40s, had come to the U.S. "to pursue a graduate degree in special education."
But Alfonso was forced to return to Panama when his visa expired, and the couple was separated for a year, in part because immigration laws did not acknowledge same-sex unions.
"Our twelve-month separation — like that of any American from their spouse — was painful," Kolbe testified. "Hector returned to Panama while he applied for another visa. Eventually, we accomplished this, but it was a long process and it was expensive — far beyond the reach of most families."
Kolbe's partner's immigration issues echo Babeu's involvement with Jose Orozco, a Mexican national whom Babeu allegedly threatened with deportation in 2012 if Orozco did not keep quiet about Babeu's sexuality. When Orozco went public with his allegations against Babeu, the fallout ended Babeu's first try at Congress in the 2012 GOP primary for the Fourth Congressional District. The scandal forced Babeu to publicly admit that he was gay.
Kolbe's coming-out was forced, as well.
In 1996, while still closeted, he voted in favor of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. According to a 1996 New York Times article, gay-rights activists, who knew that Kolbe was gay, "began a blistering campaign on the Internet" to compel him to admit his true sexual preference. As a result, Kolbe did just that.
Kolbe's political stance then shifted to include some advocacy for gay rights. Something similar occurred with Babeu. Prior to admitting to being gay, Babeu never discussed gay issues. But after the Orozco affair exploded in his face, Babeu shifted gears, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer in a 2012 interview that he supported the right of gays to marry, though he would leave it up to the states to decide whether to allow them to wed.
"[I]f it's not harming someone else, then what does it matter?" Babeu said during the interview. "And you can't legislate love."
As New Times reported earlier this year, Babeu, now 47, has been living with Israel Chabarria, 22, whom he began dating shortly after winning re-election for sheriff in 2012. Babeu's campaign spokesman confirmed that the two men are a couple but are not married.
Another parallel between the men's lives: Both men have weathered sex scandals.
In Babeu's case, one such scandal involves his position from 1999 to 2001 as headmaster and executive director of the infamous DeSisto School for troubled teens in Massachusetts. That scandal involved claims of cultlike abuse at the school, but Babeu also was alleged to have carried on an improper relationship with a male student. (Both Babeu and the former student denied any "inappropriate" affair.)
And in 2012 came l'affaire Orozco, highlighted by the release of half-naked selfies Babeu had posted to a pornographic male pickup site and a trove of explicit text messages between Babeu and Orozco that included a Babeu dick pic. (Orozco was corresponding with Babeu under a false identity in an attempt to prove the sheriff was being unfaithful.)
Kolbe, meanwhile, got caught up in the 2006 U.S. House page scandal, which resulted in the resignation of Republican Florida Congressman Mark Foley, after it was revealed that Foley had exchanged explicit instant messages with former male pages and had a pattern of inappropriate behavior with male pages that had been reported to House leadership and apparently ignored.
During the scandal, reporters for the Washington Post and other outlets revealed that a former male page under Kolbe had told the Congressman he'd received an instant message from Foley that made him "uncomfortable." Kolbe later explained in a press release that he never saw the IM, which the page had forwarded to his office. Kolbe claimed that he'd ordered the matter reported to Foley's office and to the clerk in charge of the House pages, but he had not followed up to learn what became of the issue.
Other complaints about Foley reportedly had been relayed to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, but Hastert's office never acted on them. (In 2015, Hastert, who left the House in 2007 to become a lobbyist, was indicted on federal charges related to payoffs he allegedly made to a man he had sexually abused when the man was a minor. Hastert took a plea deal, a condition of which required him to publicly admit in federal court that he had sexually abused several members of the suburban Chicago high school's boys' wrestling team, which he coached in the 1960s and 1970s.)
An investigation by the House Ethics Committee later revealed that Kolbe's former page had again contacted Kolbe after Foley resigned from Congress, asking Kolbe what he should do. The page said Kolbe told him that "'it is best that you don't even bring this up with anybody... [T]here is no good that can come from it if you actually talk about this. The man has resigned anyway.'" Kolbe admitted talking to the former page but denied telling him to keep silent.
Kolbe, who had overseen the page program as a member of the House Page Board from 1995 to 2001 and once was a page himself (for Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1950s), was warned of being too friendly with the pages in the late 1990s by Jeff Trandahl, then clerk of the House and the official in charge of the page program. Trandahl testified that he had reported his concerns about Foley's behavior to House leadership, and he also told the committee that he regarded Kolbe in the "same way" as Foley.
"I viewed him as putting himself at risk," Trandahl is quoted as stating. "He, too, spent far too much time socially interacting with the pages. I was uncomfortable with it."
The ethics panel reported that it had received other allegations regarding Kolbe and House pages that had become the subject of "a preliminary inquiry by federal law enforcement officials." Kolbe limited his statements to the committee because of the probe. Already, he had announced that he was retiring from the House, with 2006 being his last full year. As a result, the committee made no findings regarding Kolbe's behavior and did not recommend any further "investigative or disciplinary proceedings by the
House against Rep. Kolbe."
But the scandal did not go away quickly. A 2006 CNN report references a "preliminary inquiry" by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, involving a 1996 trip to the Grand Canyon that Kolbe made with employees of the National Park Service. Kolbe "toured operations and fire reconnaissance facilities" and was later joined on the expedition by several staffers, his sister, and two former pages, both of whom were 17 at the time.
According to CNN, one person on the trip, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "felt Kolbe was overly friendly with one of the former pages" and alleged there was hugging but witnessed no sexual activity and noted that everyone slept in close proximity to one another and in the open because of the extreme heat.
Kolbe vigorously denied any wrongdoing. A 2007 Associated Press story reported that the U.S. Justice Department absolved Kolbe.
New Times contacted the German Marshall Fund, requesting an interview with Kolbe to discuss his endorsement of Babeu. A spokesman for the organization said Kolbe was unavailable for comment.
Kolbe has donated $500 to Babeu's current campaign, according to the sheriff's campaign finance reports on file with the Federal Election Commission. Kolbe also lent his name to the host committee for a June fundraiser for Babeu in Washington, D.C. Back in 2012, Kolbe donated $1,000 to Babeu's failed congressional bid. After the Orozco scandal broke that year, Kolbe held a fundraising reception for the sheriff at his D.C. home.
Though Babeu sent out an e-mail about the Kolbe endorsement, so far the campaign has made no mention of it on Babeu's website, nor on his Twitter or Facebook page. This stands in stark contrast to endorsements from pols such as former Governor Jan Brewer, whose nod Babeu has proudly touted on social media.
Babeu's spokesman Barrett Marson could not be reached for comment on why the Babeu team isn't shouting out Kolbe's endorsement.
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But Wendy Rogers' spokesman Shane Wikfors has a theory.
"It sure appears that Paul Babeu has buried his endorsement by Jim Kolbe," Wikfors said when I asked about the situation. "Perhaps radioactivity levels on the former congressman have not depleted enough to make the endorsement safe for public exposure."
In other CD1 news, former Arizona House Speaker David Gowan suspended his flailing campaign late last week, throwing his support behind Republican businessman and rancher Gary Kiehne. So the field has been narrowed to five. Past polls have shown Babeu in the lead. Early voting is under way in the primary, which concludes August 30.