The Gabrielle Giffords I Know

Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is fighting for her life after being shot in the head at an event in Tucson Saturday. The news is stunning—all the more so because I was talking with her just a week ago, at Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, S.C., the annual gathering of self-improvers where Giffords and her astronaut husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, have long been regulars.

The sessions at Renaissance Weekend feature pointed, if always polite, political reflection. They are off the record, but given Giffords's grave condition, I think it's worthwhile to recount some of what she said in the two panels I shared with her. One was on "Post-Partisanship: How Did It Come to This?"; the other on "How'd We Get Here?" She talked about how ugly her last campaign was with ads that said, "Her husband won't even vote for her—why should we?" Those spots referred to the fact that Captain Kelly is on active duty assigned to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and as such has a legal address that is not in his wife's district. Plus, he has children from a former marriage, which requires his residency where they are. In recounting the ads, Giffords seemed stung by the unfairness of the attack and its personal nature, considering her opponent's supposed reverence for the military.

Her 2010 race cost $4.2 million. It was her third congressional election. In her relatively short legislative career in Washington, Giffords raised and spent more than $10 million—a fact she pointed out with an emphasis reflecting her dismay at what it takes to maintain a career in Congress these days. "At night, I'm not out with friends having a nice dinner. I'm in the call center, where, because of the time difference, I can call until 10 p.m.," she said. Giffords is one of 12 Blue Dogs left in Republican districts, and the only woman member of Congress left in a Republican district. She is back home every weekend, she said. "Nobody moves families to Washington anymore unless they're in an impossibly safe district." She talked about her struggles as a moderate: "It's held against you if you cross party lines." Case in point: the first vote she cast in this new Congress as one of some 20 Democrats opposing Nancy Pelosi as minority leader drew a Daily Kos screed titled "My Congresswoman voted against Pelosi, now she's dead to me." (After the shooting, Daily Kos removed that post from the site.)

Giffords lamented how lawmakers with high profiles get attention today, pointing to Michele Bachmann, Alan Grayson, and Joe "You Lie" Wilson, who earned their place in the spotlight through "outlandish and mean behavior ... You get no reward for being the normal, reasonable person."

Giffords took a strong stand against the Arizona anti-immigration bill, and though we don't yet know the motivation of the young man who allegedly did the shooting, it's likely that the heated emotions aroused in the state over the immigration issue may have played a role. Giffords was one of 20 Democrats on the target list that Sarah Palin posted before the elections, which featured the crosshairs of a gun sight over each member's district. It's been taken down since the shooting—but can't be erased from the blogs.

On a personal note, Giffords is one of the smartest, nicest, and most down-to-earth people I've ever encountered in the political world, a truly committed public servant with a great future. What a terrible irony that her husband can go into space in a capsule and return home safely, but his wife's safety can't be assured outside a Safeway supermarket.