As if She’ll Return Any Moment

Posted March 18, 2011 at 6:08pm

Correction Appended

Pia Carusone, chief of staff to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), reels off a string of questions and thoughts to the staff.

“Looks like we have a constituent in Japan,” she says, scanning a message on her BlackBerry.

“Did we tweet the pictures from the event yesterday?”

“And what smells so bad in the fridge?”

The scene is typical, but the circumstances are not. Carusone, 30, is a normal multitasking House chief of staff, part legislative expert, part cat-herder, part den parent. And the office is a typical Congressional operation with endless phone calls and lots of meetings. But these are the people hard at work while their boss lies in a hospital bed in Houston, undergoing intense therapy after being shot in the head 10 weeks ago.

After the shock and the confusion, Giffords’ office has found its new normal. Employees have settled into a rhythm, carrying on much like they did before the shooting.

But sometimes the staffers have to step in for the boss. Carusone is no shrinking violet, but she says she struggled with that new responsibility.

 “As a staffer, it’s just not in my DNA to be in the spotlight,” she says, “but you get over that really quickly when you realize it’s what she’d want, and when you realize that we still have a lot of ability to help people.”

Legislative Assistant Elaine Ulrich agrees. Her job, which focuses on boosting the use of solar power, isn’t much different from before. She still organizes educational events, does research and writes speeches. Only now, sometimes she has to deliver those addresses herself.

Recently, Ulrich had to videotape a speech to an Arizona group, the kind of thing that Giffords herself would have nailed in one take. Ulrich had to record several takes, with the help of an intern acting as a teleprompter.

“That’s why I’m a staffer,” she says.

A Little Help From Her Friends

When it comes to Giffords’ committee and legislative work, the office relies on help from other Members of Congress. Staffers might feel comfortable stepping in for Giffords at events or even channeling her when deciding what issues to focus on, but there’s one role that they can’t play: legislator.

Giffords has introduced one bill this Congress, a measure to reduce Congress’ pay by 5 percent that she proposed the day before the shooting. Her staff has no plans to drop other legislation anytime soon, although Carusone says they are finding ways to let Giffords make her legislative mark. “We’re working on getting bills into the hands of Members who can introduce them on her behalf.”

In committee hearings, the staff relies on Giffords’ colleagues to ask the questions that they think she would want answers to. Last Tuesday, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) asked questions during a Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing that had been provided to him by Giffords’ office.

And Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), whose office says he is “a colleague and close friend” to Giffords, asks questions on her behalf during his hearings.

“Adam works closely with her office to ensure her priorities are addressed,” a Smith aide said.

Giffords’ colleagues have also helped with fundraising: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and several other Democratic lawmakers attended a fundraiser last Tuesday that collected more than $125,000 for the Arizona Democrat.

A Day in the Life

On a recent afternoon, the office is operating much like any of the other 434. Carusone calls an applicant for a caseworker position that’s open in the Tucson, Ariz., office. “When can you start?” she asks, then moments later suggests the following Monday. “We have a lot of people who need your help,” she tells him.

A lobbyist from Arizona University comes by to update Carusone and two other aides. They talk about funding, visits to campus and programs to help veterans adjust to academic life.

Meanwhile, the air hums with the tap-tapping of fingers on keyboards, ringing phones and staffers’ chatter.

Even though the Giffords operation looks like a typical Congressional office, some of the day’s business is dictated by the shootings. Carusone and Legislative Director Peter Ambler huddle in advance of a phone call that Carusone makes to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The Giffords aides are trying to get space in the Capitol Visitor Center named after Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ director of community outreach who was killed by the same gunman who wounded the Congresswoman. The Senate staffer on the phone isn’t optimistic. Naming rights are a touchy subject, he says.

Carusone hangs up, a look of chagrin passing over her face as she turns to other business.


Keeping Notes

Another new job for the Giffords staffers is compiling detailed records of what’s happening in Congress, in the district and in the office. They write up comprehensive weekly reports on the bills that have passed, the major events of the week and the media stories driving the news.

Those will ultimately wind up in binders that Giffords can use to catch up on what she missed, Carusone says. “I think a lot about what we can do to document this for her,” she says.

And two interns from the University of Maryland’s graduate library studies program have joined the office to collect and catalogue the more than 20,000 well-wishing cards, letters and e-mails that have flooded the office.

Carusone says she speaks to Giffords during regular visits to the Houston hospital about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., but she keeps her conversation general. “I told her that there’s talk about a government shutdown,” she says. “We don’t go into as much detail as we would have in a normal situation.”

Exactly when Giffords might be ready to read those books isn’t clear — though in the Longworth office, it’s taken as an article of faith that the boss will be back. The lawmaker’s doctors’ most recent public assessment was relatively rosy: She can follow conversations, speak — sometimes in full sentences — and even walk with some help.

Giffords’ path back to Washington isn’t certain, but her staffers operate as if it were, as if at any second, Giffords might just walk into the room.

Still, for all the normalcy, it’s difficult to forget this is a tribe for whom tragedy is still fresh. After Carusone hires the new caseworker, she calls a staffer in the Tucson office to ready a new workspace.

“Not in Gabe’s old desk,” she says into the phone. “It’s too soon.”

And while Members of Congress have pitched in to help Giffords’ office on the legislative front, they’re also showing their support in more tangible ways.

Like neighbors who show sympathy in times of crises with casseroles and cookies, Members of both parties provide a daily lunch for the staff. Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) sent rotisserie chickens, and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) personally delivered pizza.

Last Friday, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) bought spaghetti and garlic bread, and the staffers gathered in the Congresswoman’s office to eat and banter. The room isn’t sacred space left empty in Giffords’ absence; even before the shooting, the always-on-the-go lawmaker spent little time sequestered there, and the staff used the large room for meetings.

Still, it’s filled with mementos, including a particularly poignant framed photo of a rocket launch. Below the image, Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, wrote an inscription, an artifact from a more carefree time. “To my favorite Congresswoman, on and off the planet,” it reads. “Love Always, Mark.”

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.

Correction: March 21, 2011

The article misstated the title of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).