“The mood on Capitol Hill is not a pleasant one,” Rep. Jim Kolbe (R.-Ariz.) said, explaining to reporters his surprise decision to retire from Congress. “I worry about that.”
But while the 63-year-old Kolbe cited what he called “divisiveness” in Washington as the chief reason for leaving the House seat he has held since 1984, more than a few pundits and home-state political opponents pointed to another reason for the moderate Republican’s exodus: his softness on the issue of illegal immigration, an increasingly volatile issue in Arizona’s 3rd District.
As the Arizona Daily Star concluded after Kolbe’s announcement: “[I]t was his support for a guest-worker program that might have prompted the strongest reaction—and disagreement—from constituents in a district that shares a border with Mexico.” Last year, illegal immigration was the basis of the primary challenge to Kolbe by state House Majority Whip Randy Graf, who drew a handsome 43% of the vote. Graf, who was outspent two-to-one by Kolbe last year, was already running hard for the 2006 primary before Kolbe decided to call it quits.
Graf is Kolbe’s polar opposite on the issue of illegal immigration. As a legislator, Graf was one of the fathers of Proposition 200, the successful state initiative that requires proof of U.S. citizenship for voter registration and requires state and local government agencies that provided non-federal benefits to verify applicants’ immigration status and eligibility. Last year, Arizonans passed Prop. 200 with 56% of the vote, including support from 47% of Mexican-American voters. Although Kolbe opposed Prop. 200, it won in his district by the same margin it won statewide.
Along with trumpeting his own stand against illegal immigration and for securing the border, Graf hit hard at Kolbe’s support of the Secure America Orderly Immigration Act (HR 2330), which would permit illegal aliens to eventually become U.S. citizens.
“The incumbent’s stand on illegal immigration was the key to our campaign [in ’04] and the key to his stepping down,” Graf’s campaign manager, Steve Aiken, told me. “Tucson is the only sector in the United States where the Border Patrol is not allowed to have permanent checkpoints. That is because Mr. Kolbe [a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee] has written that specifically in the appropriations bills dealing with the Border Patrol since 1998.” (Shortly after Kolbe’s announcement, Mike Albon, a spokesman for Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council, told the Arizona Daily Star that the congressman’s departure may be good news for his union, “which felt Kolbe meddled in the day-to-day operation of the Border Patrol.”)
Graf also took issue with the congressman’s pro-abortion stand, notably Kolbe’s refusal to vote for a ban on partial-birth abortions, and his membership in the liberal Council on Foreign Relations.
With Kolbe going, three other moderate Republicans are eying the race: State Rep. Steve Huffman, Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, and State Sen. Toni Helton, Kolbe’s longtime campaign manager. Although Kolbe has not hinted whom he favors, he made it clear whom he doesn’t support. “I think we can do better than Randy Graf,” he told reporters.