TUCSON — He held her in an upright position against his chest to keep her from drowning in her own blood and applied pressure to her head wound.
It was then that Daniel Hernandez Jr. remembered a television show he watched when he was 10 years old. It was about brain injuries and he knew he had to keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords engaged.
He kept asking her questions, such as whether she knew she’d been shot. She’d reply with a squeeze of the hand, move two fingers or give a thumbs up.
His actions on Jan. 8, 2011, helped save Giffords’ life and thrust Hernandez, then a 20-year-old intern for the Arizona Democrat, into the national limelight.
He met the president and spent a good portion of his time traveling the country delivering motivational speeches. Hernandez wrote a book and even won a seat on a Tucson-area school board in 2011 — before he’d graduated from college.
Hernandez, now 23, is viewed by some as a rising Arizona political star and something rare in this conservative state: a gay, Latino and Democratic officeholder willing to speak out on tough issues, such as promoting gay rights or preventing gun violence.
His critics call him a troublemaker who muddies the water for his own political gain. His supporters call him a renaissance man who is mature beyond his years.
Hernandez said that although the shooting that killed six people and wounded 13 others was one of the defining moments in his life, he had tried to not let it define him. “I’m more than the person who was involved in a shooting in Tucson,” he said.
Instead, he said, he has used his celebrity to bring attention to causes he believes should be addressed, even if it makes him a target. Critics started a recall effort against him and some have questioned whether he’s in the United States legally.
Hernandez said he tried not to dwell on the tragedy that propelled him to prominence. Still, he sometimes can’t escape it. People approach him all the time. Some hug him. Others congratulate him.
Hernandez has learned to navigate the awkwardness of his fame with a bit of grace.
“If I have the exposure, I’ll do good with it,” he told himself. “There aren’t many LGBT Latinos to look up to.”
Even before the shooting, Hernandez had become enamored with politics, serving as a volunteer for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He later met Giffords, whom he found to be warm and intelligent. He signed on to help her on her campaign while he worked as a paid staffer on state legislative races.
He was a college junior and just a few days into his unpaid internship with Giffords when the shooting happened at one of her frequent “Congress on Your Corner” meetings with constituents.
Since then, he’s delivered motivational speeches to thousands of people. He’s given more than 1,500 interviews. He had to shut down an email account because he couldn’t keep up with the messages.
He also found his voice, said Cathy Monroe, a high school teacher who still keeps in touch with him. Hernandez was a student in her medical careers class, where he learned CPR and first aid.
“I think when you find your voice you are able to speak to those issues, and Daniel can do this very well and in a very clear voice,” Monroe said.
After the shooting, Hernandez initially shied away from taking a stand on gun issues. He’d grown up hunting and didn’t want to be labeled as an “anti-gun person.” Then the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in Newtown, Conn.
He studied the issue and came to the conclusion that he needed to take a stand against gun violence and now believes that universal background checks are necessary.
“As a survivor of gun violence and responsible for 17,000 students, I can’t sit back and do nothing,” he said.
His stance has gained him detractors.
So has his criticism over the management of the Sunnyside Unified School District, which serves a primarily Latino student body in a poor area of southern Tucson. Some critics even tried gathering signatures to recall Hernandez. The move didn’t go anywhere.
Louie Gonzales, who has served on the school board for 12 years and describes Hernandez as “selfish,” said Hernandez’s criticism of the board was self-promoting and “destroys the integrity” of the district.
“He does ask a lot of questions, but it’s because he doesn’t understand his duty and his job,” Gonzales said. “He makes charges to dirty the water.”
Hernandez said he was fine with being called a troublemaker who asked too many questions and made too many comments.
“That is a hat I’ll wear if it exposes wrongdoing,” he said.
Although the recall attempt against Hernandez failed, fliers attacking his sexuality disappointed him.
One flier read: “Put a real man on the Sunnyside Board. Daniel Hernandez is LGBT. We need someone who will support Sports and cares about our kids.”
He’s used to the criticism.
Just four days after the shooting, Hernandez, a U.S. citizen, received emails from people who told him that, despite his heroic acts, he shouldn’t be granted legal status and should return to Mexico.
Hernandez simply brushes off the insults.
His mother has asked him to step down from the school board, unable to bear the attacks on her son.
From time to time, Hernandez also has become disillusioned with politics.
“Why am I doing this?” he asks himself. “This isn’t worth the energy, the toil.”
Then, he said, he thinks better of it.