A calm voice in a divided district

Gabrielle Giffords is a politician; her Navy captain husband is an astronaut. It was his occupation that was supposed to be dangerous. But Giffords, the moderate, three-term Democratic congresswoman who survived a bullet’s trajectory through her head, has already had brushes with danger on the job.

Last March, after the House approved healthcare reform with her support, someone shot or kicked out a glass door in her Tucson office. During a town hall meeting with constituents in 2009 at the height of the healthcare debate, a protester showed up with a gun. Police were called, but Giffords made light of the incident.

“When you represent a district that includes the homes of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, ‘The Town Too Tough to Die,’ nothing’s a surprise out in Cochise County,” she told the Arizona Republic.


Former Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy, who has known Giffords for more than a decade, said her attitude was not surprising.

“She’s in the best tradition of those who say, ‘I have to ignore that and go out there and do it because it comes with the territory,’ ” Volgy said. “She’s … very warm, very caring … very much committed to public service.”

According to the National Journal, Giffords made 340 appearances in her district in her first term.

People who know the congresswoman well described her as down to earth, energetic and — at the center —calm.

Giffords’ rabbi, Stephanie Aaron, said the lawmaker asked her to give the invocation at a town hall meeting last year at a high school. Many in the overflow crowd of more than 1,000 were angry and confrontational.

“She was just so calm,” said Aaron, who also presided over Giffords’ wedding. “She kept her composure through the whole event — a very bitter, raucous session — kept her cool so people could talk and listen to each other. … At her core she’s a very calm soul. … She seems like the very last person who would attract anyone who would want to do something like this.”

Former South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a fellow Democrat, cried when she spoke about Giffords’ shooting. “When I heard some of the reports confirming she’s survived in surgery, I thought, thank God, and also, ‘That’s Gabby,’ ” said Sandlin, who threw a wedding shower for Giffords three years ago. “She’s one of the strongest women I know.”

Giffords, 40, is a rarity in transient Arizona: a third-generation native. But her political persona was perfectly suited to her swing district. Independent-minded, she was among 19 Democrats last week who did not vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) as House speaker. Instead, she voted for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights movement veteran.

Giffords joined the GOP on Thursday in reading the Constitution on the House floor, gushing afterward to the New York Times: “I just read the 1st Amendment!”

Giffords first won elective office in 2000 when she joined the state House of Representatives, and two years later — at age 32 — she became the youngest women elected to the Arizona Senate.

In 2005, when Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe announced his retirement after 11 terms, Giffords gave up her state Senate seat to campaign full-time. She easily defeated Republican Randy Graf, a favorite of the self-appointed border patrol group the Minutemen. Her district, Arizona’s 8th, is one of the most competitive in the state. It stretches south and east across the desert and shares 100 miles of border with Mexico.

Soon after she was sent to Washington, she joined the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, but supported the party on most social-issue legislation and took a relatively moderate stance on immigration, a crucial issue in her district.

Giffords endorsed the Obama administration’s deployment of National Guard troops on the border. But she also favored a guest-worker program and path to citizenship for those in the country illegally who met certain requirements.

She opposed Arizona’s controversial immigration law enacted last year, but rejected calls for a national boycott of the state in protest of that law.

It was a source of great frustration to Republicans when they failed to oust Giffords in November, in a race that was not called until three days after the election. Giffords edged Republican Jesse Kelly, a former Marine and a “tea party” favorite who lost by slightly more than 1 percentage point.

In a recent Fox interview, she characterized herself as a “someone who is pretty in the middle.”

She met her husband, Navy Capt. Mark E. Kelly, in China as part of an exchange program with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. On their first date, they visited a maximum-security prison in Florence, site of Arizona’s death row. Her future husband jumped into the electric chair, she told the Arizona Daily Star.

The November 2007 nuptials between the astronaut and the congresswoman were chronicled in the New York Times’ Vows column. " Frank Capra would have had a field day with the life of Gabrielle Giffords,” said economist and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a mentor of hers.

Reich offered a toast: “To a bride who moves at a velocity that exceeds that of anyone else in Washington, and a groom who moves at a velocity that exceeds 17,000 miles per hour.”

Kelly, 46, a father of two teenage girls, is a three-time veteran of space shuttle missions. On April 1, he is scheduled to command the last flight of the shuttle Endeavour. Kelly is scheduled to meet in space with his twin brother, Scott, commander of the International Space Station.

In 2008, as Giffords watched her husband blast into orbit aboard Discovery, she relayed their intimate goodbye conversation to the Arizona Daily Star. “We told each other how much we loved each other,” Giffords said. “And then he asked to make sure that I had his garbage can brought in from the street.”

Giffords earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and Latin American studies from Claremont’s Scripps College in 1993. She received a master’s degree in regional planning from Cornell University.

In May 2009, Giffords returned to Scripps to give the commencement address.

“The safety of the world depends on your saying ‘no’ to inhumane ideas,” she told graduates. “Standing up for one’s own integrity makes you no friends. It is costly. Yet defiance of the mob, in the service of that which is right, is one of the highest expressions of courage I know.”

Abcarian reported from Los Angeles, Barabak from San Francisco and Mascaro from Washington.