As Giffords recovers, friends keep office open

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Since she was shot in the head in Tucson, Ariz., 10 weeks ago, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona has turned to a trio of her closest friends to keep her official operations running.

Last week, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, all Democrats, hosted a fundraiser in Washington, raising about $200,000 for Giffords' 2012 campaign.

On Wednesday, Smith concluded a two-day visit to southern Arizona, where he toured military installations and met with Giffords' constituents. Next week, he'll go to a hospital in Houston, where the congresswoman is recuperating, to discuss his trip to her congressional district.

"We want to make sure that if she comes back to work, it's all there ready and she can pick up and run with it," Smith said in a telephone interview from Tucson. "She's a great member of Congress, and the work she's doing is important and we want to make sure it continues."

Giffords and 12 others were wounded, and six people were killed, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner allegedly opened fire at an event hosted by the congresswoman in the parking lot of a Tucson supermarket on Jan. 8.

It's uncertain when or if she'll return to work on Capitol Hill.

"Who knows, when she gets better, exactly what she's going to want to do?" asked Smith. "You just don't know. Those of us who know her have a very, very strong suspicion that she's going to want to keep doing what she's doing, but you don't know."

Smith said the three members of Congress have been working on Giffords' behalf since her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, first reached out to them in January, asking them to travel to Tucson when President Barack Obama went there for a memorial service.

"We're all very, very happy to do it," Smith said. "Mark has been incredible throughout this entire process, in terms of keeping everything going and taking care of Gabby, and making sure all of her interests are looked after."

Smith said he talks with Kelly at least twice a week. He's in close contact with Giffords' staff and even asks questions for her at hearings of the House Armed Services Committee, where Giffords serves and Smith is the ranking Democrat. Smith said Giffords is particularly interested in advancing the use of non-lethal weapons, such as stun guns, and alternative energy sources for the military.

"That's her seat on the committee, and it's going to stay there until she comes back and occupies it again," said Smith, an eight-term congressman. He credited Giffords with helping him get elected as ranking member in December, saying "she was relentless and tireless in talking me up."

Wasserman Schultz, who survived breast cancer, said she empathizes with Giffords.

"Having been through a personal health care crisis myself, I got through it with my close family and girlfriends. So I'm just trying to be a good girlfriend," she said.

Wasserman Schultz said she has been out to visit Giffords four times since the shooting and is trying to go at least once a month.

Her staff has also helped out. Her chief spokesman, Jonathan Beeton, spent some time in Tucson helping Giffords' staff deal with phone calls and press inquiries.

Wasserman Schultz said she rotated some of her staff into Giffords' Washington office to help with calls and constituent casework — "things that were obviously overwhelming them at the beginning."

The Giffords camp clearly appreciates the help.

C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Giffords, said Smith participated in "a fantastic event" for the congresswoman Wednesday, speaking to a large group of business officials and retirees on military issues, which are big in her 9,000-square-mile district.

"Congresswoman Giffords has a lot of close friends on Capitol Hill and it is great to know that (they) are looking after the issues that have been and will continue to be so important to her," he said.

It has been an emotional ordeal for Smith, who's visited Giffords three times — once in Tucson, twice in Houston — since the shooting.

"It's always incredibly encouraging," he said. "I mean, it was just horrific, getting the news report, hearing about what happened to her. And of course they reported that she had died. I was sitting in my living room in Tacoma, and that's what I thought."

Smith has traveled extensively with Giffords, a 40-year-old three-term member, on business related to their work on the Armed Services Committee. In 2009, they took a four-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Together, they have traveled to Africa and more than 20 countries, including Iraq, Germany, Belgium, Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

Both are members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. This year, the two teamed up in the first week of the new session, days before Gifford was injured, on a bill to cut congressional pay by 5 percent, in what would be the first reduction in nearly 78 years.

Smith said that Giffords' ability to walk and talk has improved considerably, and that she's making progress.

"It gets better every day," he said. "It is a shocking injury that she's sustained. And the fact that she's come back as quickly as she has just bodes extraordinarily well for the future. ... That's what gives everybody so much encouragement."

(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)

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