Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who came to symbolize hope and resilience as she tenaciously recovered from a gunshot wound to the head during the last year, announced she would resign from Congress to concentrate on her recovery.
Giffords, 41, announced her plans in a stylized video on YouTube and Facebook and in a Twitter post. Her decision, effective this week, clears the way for candidates in both parties to stake a claim on her competitive border district. By state law, her replacement will be chosen in a special election.
“I have more work to do on my recovery,” Giffords says in the video, appearing in a crisp red jacket and without the glasses she has sported recently. She says she is doing what is best for the state.
“I’m getting better. Every day my spirit is high,” she says, speaking directly, deliberately and somewhat haltingly. “I will return, and we will work together for Arizona.”
Her announcement comes just over a year after a gunman opened fire while Giffords greeted constituents outside a Tucson Safeway. Six people were killed, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001. Thirteen were wounded, including Giffords.
The alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, has pleaded not guilty to multiple federal charges. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he has been found incompetent to stand trial and is being held in a federal prison hospital as doctors try to restore his competency.
The shooting, and Giffords’ recovery with the support of her high-profile husband, now-retired astronaut Mark E. Kelly, turned her into a national heroine. When she made a surprise appearance on the House floor last summer to vote for raising the nation’s debt ceiling, she received a bipartisan standing ovation.
On Sunday, President Obama praised her decision to resign as “selfless.”
“Over the last year, Gabby and her husband, Mark, have taught us the true meaning of hope in the face of despair, determination in the face of incredible odds, and now — even after she’s come so far — Gabby shows us what it means to be selfless as well,” he said.
Giffords, who is serving her third term, had earned plaudits for her congeniality and middle-of-the-road approach to lawmaking. She had until May to file for reelection.
Sunday’s announcement sparked an outpouring of support for the wounded congresswoman, as well as speculation about the timing and what it means for the race to replace her.
Democratic Party leaders were warned beforehand and may have conferred with Giffords.
Kelly tweeted a photo of himself on the phone Sunday, saying, “Called some of Gabby’s friends & colleagues to tell them about her decision.”
Among those he alerted: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), according to a Democratic source who asked not to be identified to describe a private conversation.
In a statement, Pelosi called Giffords a “true bright star — a dynamic and creative public servant.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) praised Giffords “for her service, and for the courage and perseverance she has shown in the face of tragedy. She will be missed.”
Once Giffords’ seat is declared vacant, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer must call a special election. The primary must be held within 80 to 90 days, and the general election 50 to 60 days after that. The winner will serve through December and, to remain in office, would have to run again in an August primary and in the November general election.
Giffords’ 8th Congressional District, created in 2002, is a mix of conservatives, liberals and independents that tends to lean Republican. But after redistricting takes effect with the August primary, it is expected to tilt Democratic. The special election will be held under the current district lines.
Both Democrats and Republicans will position the special election as a potential bellwether for voter preferences heading into the fall “because it’s a seat either could win,” said John Pitney, a former GOP operative and now professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. He warned against drawing sweeping conclusions without knowing the candidates.
“It was an act of heroism to last in the seat as long as she did,” Pitney said. “She gave it her best shot.”
Some had speculated that Kelly might run in his wife’s stead, using a campaign fund she has accumulated of more than $800,000. He has rejected those rumors.
Giffords’ endorsement would be likely to carry great weight. David Wasserman, who analyzes House races at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said, “Democrats might figure a Giffords-blessed successor would have a better chance in a stand-alone special election than a November race obscured by the presidential” contest.
In Sunday’s video, Giffords talks about returning to public service someday. A close friend in Congress who is also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, agreed.
“We will miss Gabby’s spirit in Congress ... but I am confident that she will return to public service and we can all work together for America,” she said.
The weekend Giffords spent in Tucson for the anniversary of the shooting “crystallized” her choice, Wasserman Schultz said. Never one to settle for doing something “halfway,” she realized “she’d be doing neither thing full strength.”
“She’s at peace with the decision, as sad and wistful as she is about leaving public service,” the Florida Democrat said.
Giffords said in a news release that she would meet privately Monday with some constituents to finish the Congress on Your Corner event that was interrupted by gunfire. Among those attending will be some of the people injured in the shooting and others who subdued the gunman, the news release said.
“I don’t remember much from that horrible day,” she says in the video, “but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice. Thank you for your prayers and for giving me time to recover. I have more work to do on my recovery, so to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week.”
She plans to attend Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.
By Sunday evening, more than 2,000 comments had been posted on Giffords’ Facebook page.
“You will be missed, but you must take care of yourself,” said Kathy Stanton of Sunnyvale, Calif. “I have no doubt you will be back!”
Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and James Oliphant contributed to this report.