by Ellie Brecher, Journalist, reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
June 9, 1935–June 22, 2023
When former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard ran for governor in 2014, he asked the man who’d been his campaign treasurer in past races for a reprise.
“Let someone else have all the fun,’’ Paul Barby told him, with enough sarcasm to make the point that being a campaign treasurer is no fun at all.
Goddard calls it “the toughest job in a political campaign. You’re always late on financial reporting, and the treasurer has to juggle a lot of balls. But with Paul, there was no fuss and he was calm in a crisis. He could handle complicated numbers with aplomb. He was what you pray for in a campaign treasurer.’’
Former AZ Rep. Randy Friese thought so too, and lured Barby into his 2014 legislative campaign. Not only did Barby get a tough job done, “He made me believe in myself as a candidate,’’ Friese said. “He was a very genuine, nice man – kind, thoughtful.’’
Also energetic, reliable, and generous with his time and money to people, causes and institutions in which he believed. A gentleman rancher with roots deep in the Oklahoma Panhandle’s red dirt, Barby had been in failing health for several years. He died at 88 on June 22, 2023. Born Paul Marion Barby to Anna Celestine Pearson Barby and Lloyd Barby in Beaver, OK, on June 9, 1935, he spent his final years at Tucson’s Sunrise at River, a retirement community.
An ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, Paul had been a Catalina Democrats-level donor to the Pima County Democratic Party and former Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) steering-committee member. He was active in the arts, the LGBTQ community, literacy projects, and humanitarian efforts at the border.
A live theater fan, Barby served four years on the Rogue Theatre’s board and appeared in two productions: as Morrison in Major Barbara (2011) and Simon Stimson in Our Town (2009).
He spent a decade as treasurer for No More Deaths, which works to stop migrant deaths in the Mexico-Arizona borderlands, and volunteered for elementary-school reading programs.
“Paul was passionate about border issues,’’ said No More Deaths volunteer Jim Marx. He took volunteers to Nogales to see migrant shelters.
Her uncle was “so generous – more than what people knew – silently for less fortunate people. If there was a need, he took care of it,’’ said niece Jean Wellfare, of Edmond, OK. “He was so humble.’’
“He wasn’t shy,’’ said her sister, Maggie Ferko, a longtime Pima County Health Department employee now living in Seattle. “He was a bundle of energy who couldn’t sit still. He was constantly trying to help people,’’ especially local businesses.
“Paul knew every independent restaurant in Tucson,’’ said friend Jenise Porter, a PCDP territory lead. When they served together on the PDA steering committee, “We were trying to find all the PCs in every county, trying to pull them into the Bernie campaign. Paul got that information even if he had to argue with recorders to get it. When he said he was going to do something, he did it.’’
In the early 2000s, Barby settled in Tucson, home to various maternal relatives. In 1974, his mother, an amateur artist and world traveler, commissioned famed Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff to build a landmark mid-Century Modern in Tucson home known as The Barby House, at 7110 North Camino de Fosforo.
In Oklahoma, where the family’s Bar B Ranch produces prized working horses and cattle, Barby had handled the family’s extensive oil and gas leases. A University of Oklahoma graduate, he served as a Regent for Oklahoma Colleges and lobbied the state legislature on behalf of small mineral producers.
In 1996, at 61, Barby made a life-altering decision. The Oklahoma Democratic Party asked him to run for Congress. In a letter to the party accepting the challenge, Paul came out as gay. (Coincidentally, the late Tucson Republican, Jim Kolbe, also came out that year, when he handily won a seventh Congressional term).
Barby was the first openly gay male candidate ever to run for federal office. News accounts of the day called him a “self-proclaimed homosexual.’’ He ran in Oklahoma’s 6th Congressional District, a solidly Red, largely rural swath of the Southern Baptist Bible Belt. He challenged Republican incumbent Frank Lucas, and ran closer than anyone predicted, aided by 96% of the district’s Black vote. Surprisingly, no one “gay-baited’’ him.
”Paul Barby has been campaigning all over the district,” Keith Smith, Paul’s campaign manager, told the New York Times, ”and the worst thing that people have said to him is that they are going to vote for him but keep it secret.”
But Barby’s gutsy decision caused a family schism. Seven relatives, including brother Stanley Barby, released an open letter supporting Lucas. (Paul’s sister, the late Norma Barby Cafky, did not sign). While never mentioning Paul’s sexual orientation, their disdain oozed from between the lines.
“Paul was a brave man,’’ said Randy Friese.
“He was way, way ahead of his time,’’ added Jean Wellfare.
In a video by Not Another Second, a Watermark Communities cultural project celebrating LGBTQ seniors, Barby said: “I remember very clearly…looking at myself in the mirror and I thought, ‘You’ll never be able to live with yourself if you don’t run,’ and I did and I’m glad I did. It made life easier for many gay people in Oklahoma.’’ (Watch the video at notanothersecond.com).
One supporter told him: “ ’You know, Paul, you’d make a great congressman for us. I’ll vote for you, my family will vote for you, my friends will vote for you, but none of us will stand up for you.’ ‘’
Barby campaigned as “a crusader for small farms and businesses [who was] upset to see new Super Wal-Marts opening in his district, driving local retailers out of business,’’ a 1996 CNN story said. “In many ways Paul Barby is the perfect congressional candidate, a pillar of the community, a college regent who likes to talk about family values.’’
The latter was a hard sell in Oklahoma’s 6th C.D., as were his support for hate-crimes laws and his opposition to the death penalty.
“…It just almost turned my stomach when he was talking about all these family value issues and there’s a man that’s a gay person that’s wanting to write laws about our family values,” said a man at a Barby campaign event.
“Someone who says they are openly homosexual and continues to live in that lifestyle – that’s a sin. And they need to repent and turn away from that,” another said.
Barby countered: “Let’s make it clear in the beginning that I’m not running because I’m gay. I happen to be a gay person who’s been working out there to make the community better. For all my life I’ve done that.”
He said he stepped up because he was tired of being bullied.
“We were bullied on the school ground when we were kids,’’ he said. “Why are we still being the subject of bullies? Why is this happening? Why don’t people stand up? That’s why I took a stand, because I’m tired of being…put down because of who I am. I’m a strong individual.”
Barby’s late sister’s daughters Jean, Maggie, and Ann Miller, of Norman, OK, survive, as do their children and many cousins. Barby and brother Stanley never reconciled.