Even before her dramatic vote Monday to raise the debt limit, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was on her way to joining a rough-hewn elite of Arizona political figures.
The Grand Canyon State is full of larger-than-life characters, but true icons —such as the late Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. Morris Udall, and Sen. John McCain and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — punched through to become part of the broader American culture.
Giffords’ story this year, all the way from gravely injured shooting victim to returning lawmaker, places her in that company.
And it wasn’t as if Giffords’ first vote back was to name a post office. It was to raise the debt limit at the eleventh hour, a vote lawmakers bemoan — the quintessential no-win situation.
Vote against it, and you risk the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury. Vote for it, and you have to explain to folks in your district who might have trouble paying the rent on a two-bedroom apartment why $14 trillion isn’t enough to cover the nation’s IOUs.
No one expected her to be back, and the outcome of the bill wasn’t really in doubt. No one would have thought twice about her missing this vote even if they had known she was in town.
But that’s not really her style. And on a measure that consumed Congress and the White House for months and proved radioactive politically for all those involved, she proudly announced she was voting for it.
“After weeks of failed debate in Washington, I was pleased to see a solution to this crisis emerge. I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics,” Giffords said in a press release.
Her remarkable appearance signaled to political insiders from both parties in Tucson, Ariz., that the Congresswoman seems at least to be on pace to run for re-election.
“The reports from her campaign, Congressional staff and family have always been the same. Her main focus is on her recovery,” Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers said. “However, seeing her there for what could’ve been a close vote certainly makes us all optimistic that she’s going to be back on the campaign trail.”
Retired Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, whose seat Giffords holds, called what happened on the House floor Monday “an electric moment.”
“I think it’s an indication that she’s serious about continuing to fulfill her duties and responsibilities,” he said. “Whether that means she runs, I don’t know, and I doubt she’s made that decision yet.”
Colleagues in Congress have ensured that money will not be an issue by holding fundraisers in her stead. And so far, no Republicans have indicated publicly that they are interested in challenging her. The candidate filing deadline is May 26.
Monday’s events also transformed the politics of any potential re-election.
All of a sudden, the bar for missing a vote was set much higher. And just try, as a political opponent, to use that vote against her.
Giffords was already immensely popular in Arizona, and on Capitol Hill, before the Jan. 8 shooting rampage that critically injured her and killed six people, including her community outreach director, Gabe Zimmerman, and federal Judge John Roll.
She was a moderate, inspired to public service by O’Connor. A third-generation Arizonan — rare for the fast-growing state — she returned to Tucson from graduate school and a brief consulting gig in New York to run the family tire business. Shortly after, she won a state House seat. She was elected at age 32 to the state Senate, the youngest woman to ever achieve that position.
In 2006, she won an open House seat when Kolbe retired, and she continued winning tough races in a swing district, including during 2010’s GOP wave year.
People simply liked her. She drove a motorcycle, rode horses, spoke Spanish, owned guns and married an astronaut, Mark Kelly. She was all-American and all-Arizonan.
Still, she was young and only in her third term. There was plenty of time to become just another politician.
Then, the shooting happened and the world took notice. Perhaps it’s not fair that in a traumatic event such as that, so much attention would shift to one person.
Six were killed and 13 injured, after all, and the city of Tucson was shocked to be host to political violence — at a shopping center in its tony foothills, of all places.
But officials say she was the target of Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged assailant, and the grievous nature of her injury and the maliciousness of the attack stood in stark contrast to her sunny public persona.
Her miraculous recovery was touted as a tribute to her bravery and pluck. Typical of this line of thinking was an editorial cartoon by the Arizona Daily Star’s David Fitzsimmons that ran on Jan. 12. It depicted a man and woman in front of a movie theater showing “True Grit.”
“I understand it’s about Congresswoman Giffords,” said the man.
Tombstone, Ariz. — part of Giffords’ district — is “the town too tough to die,” a place where there are daily re-enactments of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Giffords became the Congresswoman too tough to kill.
By the time President Barack Obama went to Tucson for the “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America” memorial event at the University of Arizona on Jan. 12, the city had started to heal along with Giffords.
Obama told the capacity crowd at the McKale Memorial Center that Giffords had, just before the event, opened her eyes for the first time since being shot.
The crowd was ready for the good news and roared.
But the atmosphere was far from solemn even before that announcement, more Irish wake than dirge, with people cheering on the state’s political class — McCain, O’Connor, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, former Gov. and current Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — as well as the survivors, the trauma surgeons who saved Giffords’ life and other longtime Tucson and Arizona fixtures.
Since then, Arizonans, and Americans, have cheered Giffords on as she rehabbed in Houston, traveled to Florida to see her husband command the last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour and posted photos on Facebook.
Questions remain, though. Part of her brain is missing. Her friends and colleagues report progress and talk an optimistic game as they help her raise money for a possible re-election campaign, but that’s expected.
With the simple act of voting, Giffords took control of the narrative. She’s still a Member. Injured or not, recovering or not, she was there to vote — and on the most divisive and fundamental issue of the 112th Congress.
As to questions about her capacity to serve, those will remain for the foreseeable future.
Udall, were he still around, would be the first to say being partially disabled is no impediment to serving in Congress.
During his 1976 presidential campaign, the Democrat, who was blind in one eye, would frequently quip: “Handicap? I’m a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona. You can’t find a higher handicap than that.”
It’s likely Giffords is familiar with the quote.
The writer is a native Arizonan. He covered the aftermath of the shooting from Tucson, Ariz., for National Journal.
Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.