Arizonans put politics aside to pull for Giffords

Outside the Tucson office of gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the well-wishers bearing crumpled notes and pink roses are emblematic of the breadth of her support.

They are tattooed college students and flannel-clad construction workers. They are retirees who clutch their canes and weep. Giffords is Jewish, yet many leave candles depicting the Virgin Mary. Giffords is a Democrat, yet many are Republicans.

“I saw her as a voice of reason. In Arizona, they’re real hard to find,” said Sharon Baker, a 63-year-old Republican whose face fell at the sight of the cluster of red and blue balloons, greeting cards and stuffed animals.

In a state known for rhetoric gone wild, Arizonans are mourning more than Saturday’s shooting, which killed six people and left Giffords battling a traumatic brain injury. The gunman’s actions have, for the moment, silenced a rare voice of calm amid the political cacophony.

“She appealed to everyone and that’s what we need. We need to elect more Gabby Giffordses,” said Laura Walls, 47, a personal trainer who visited the roadside tribute this week. She voted for Giffords’ “tea party” rival in November.


The blunt truth about divisive attack-politicking is that it works. So one paradox in the calls for political calm in the shooting’s aftermath is the fact that Giffords was already practicing a gentler brand of politics — and showed it could work.

Through years of partisan bickering over immigration, and during last year’s heated healthcare debate, Giffords mostly refused to wallow in political mud. She joined Republican calls for beefed-up border enforcement, but sided with Democrats on cap-and-trade legislation and healthcare — a vote that may have prompted someone to shatter her Tucson office’s glass door.

Giffords squeaked by Republican Jesse Kelly in November’s election, partly by running sunny biographical ads, while Kelly preened with an assault rifle in his campaign photos. In her GOP-leaning district, which home-state Sen. John McCain won in the 2008 presidential race, Giffords was rewarded with the support of Republicans weary of rhetorical bomb-throwing.

“I don’t think she tried to frame herself that way; I think that was her personality,” said Rodolfo Espino, an Arizona State University political scientist. “A lot of politicians make a name for themselves by name-calling and partisan rhetoric. She made a name for herself by staying out of the way.”

In many ways, Giffords evoked the pragmatism of old-school Western Democrats forced to balance the wants of ranchers and environmentalists, strip mall developers and Native American tribes, voters who deplore Washington and those who depend on it financially. That proved a smart approach in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

A hodgepodge of suburban sprawl and saguaro cacti, the district includes both historic Tombstone and parts of urban Tucson and shares more than 100 of miles of border with Mexico. One-fifth of residents are Latino. During the fall campaign, rivals vilified Giffords for opposing SB 1070, a tough state immigration law that critics said encouraged racial profiling.

Giffords was taken aback by the tone of the election season, as was Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, a fellow Democrat whose district abuts that of the three-term congresswoman. “Afterward, we did commiserate about how ugly it was, about how much anger there was out there, how all the independent expenditures were saying and running ads that just misstated or outright lied about our positions,” Grijalva said. Still, Giffords eked out a victory by fewer than 4,000 votes.

Political scientist Espino likened Giffords to former Rep. Morris K. Udall and former Gov. Janet Napolitano, Arizona Democrats known for reaching across the aisle. In Washington last year, Giffords parted ways with the Democratic majority 40% of the time on votes that split the parties, according to Congressional Quarterly.

But Giffords could charm colleagues while breaking rank, said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, a fellow member of the moderate Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. Though the lawmakers once disagreed over an issue related to NASA, Schiff said he was impressed enough with how Giffords handled herself that he later donated to her campaign.

“If there was a poll of members of the House, she would probably be voted least likely to offend any human being,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

So it’s not surprising that officials who have visited the hospital come from across the political spectrum — Gov. Jan Brewer and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, both Republicans; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats. Giffords opened her eyes for the first time Wednesday, not long after a visit from President Obama.

Speaking that night at a memorial service here, Obama noted that Phyllis Schneck, a 79-year-old great-grandmother, was among those killed when gunfire erupted at Giffords’ Congress on Your Corner meet-and-greet for constituents. “A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better,” Obama said of Schneck.

Giffords’ middle-of-the-road stance grew particularly appealing in Arizona as some conservatives bore down on immigration and bragged of their uncompromising nature.

Roberta Gauna-Amos, a 20-year-old community college student, crossed party lines to vote for Giffords. “I don’t think she’s about Republican and Democrat. I think she’s about listening to the needs of people,” Gauna-Amos said after viewing the tribute. “She was so tiny, but so strong.”

Giffords had the added sparkle of running her family’s tire store, owning a gun, riding a motorcycle, having a toothpaste-commercial grin and being married to an astronaut for three years. And she clearly understood the political and cultural complexities of southern Arizona.

After a rancher was murdered near the border in March, inciting a public furor that helped push through SB 1070, Giffords organized monthly conference calls between federal agencies and anxious farming and ranching communities, said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. Giffords was a proponent of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but she also called for the president to send troops to the border — a something-for-everyone approach that made sense in her district.

Giffords flew back to southern Arizona frequently. That face time helped her sidestep a common landmine for politicians in the West: being painted as too much a creature of Washington. During the healthcare firestorm of 2009, however, her town halls turned vicious; some audience members tried to shout Giffords down before she started speaking.

“Rather than accuse them of anything or shout back something, she always pleaded for reasonableness,” said Richard H. Carmona, a Giffords ally who was surgeon general under President George W. Bush.

It took something the magnitude of Giffords’ shooting for the rest of the country — at least temporarily — to adopt that approach. This week, the U.S. House swapped a planned vote to repeal the healthcare bill, which might have revived partisan rancor, for an emotional prayer service.

Powers and Santa Cruz reported from Tucson and Simon from Washington.