The lasting, hopeful legacy of that awful January day in Tucson is that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lived. Walking and talking again, however haltingly, she has become an inspiration to people far and wide.
But the tragic aftermath of the shooting — six dead, 13 wounded — lingers on Capitol Hill and beyond. This week, the House is expected to honor one of its own lost in the tragedy with a vote to affix Gabe Zimmerman’s name to a room in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Zimmerman, 30, was Giffords community outreach director. The House is expected to vote Thursday to dedicate a room to him,11 months after the Jan. 8 shooting in which Zimmerman became the first congressional aide slain in the line of duty.
That shooting took place at a constituent event that Zimmerman had organized and claimed the life of the Giffords aide and five others, including federal judge John Roll and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. The alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at point-blank range. Giffords, who has been recovering at a rehabilitation center in Houston, recently went public with the story of her fight for survival.
The Arizona Democrat will remain in Houston to continue her rehabilitation during the vote, according to her senior press adviser, Mark Kimble, one of five staffers who were with Giffords on the day of the shooting.
The room-naming resolution, which was introduced in July by Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and close Giffords friend Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), is being fast-tracked to the floor by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after months of deliberations on how to honor Zimmerman.
“We deeply appreciate this show of support by the House of Representatives,” Zimmerman’s younger brother, Ben, said Wednesday in a statement on behalf of the Zimmerman family. “This is a wonderful way to memorialize my brother, Gabe. ... We would like to extended our warmest sympathies to the other victims of the Jan. 8 tragedy and their families for enduring this process of grief and struggle along with us.”
HVC-215, the Capitol Visitor Center room that will be dedicated to Zimmerman, is a basement conference room that hosts House Democrats’ weekly caucus meetings as well as regular gatherings of press secretaries, chiefs of staff and other aides – a point that Wasserman Schultz said was of key importance to Zimmerman’s family.
“The reason that the Zimmermans thought it was so important to name this room after their son was to send a message to the entire congressional family of staffers that their work is incredibly meaningful, and they really thought it was important that a room that is used by staffers as often as this one is be named for Gabe,” she said.
“Each of us as members knows that we could never be as successful as we are in serving our constituents without the incredible work of our staff,” she added.
In the 11 months since the shooting, the most visible reminder on Capitol Hill of the incident has been the large electronic board in the House chamber that displays lawmakers’ names during votes. Next to each member’s name lights up a “Y” for a “yes” vote, an “N” for a “no,” or a “P” for “present.” The space next to Giffords’s name has remained blank, save for the one night in early August when she was greeted with a standing ovation as she made a surprise return to the House to cast a vote on the debt-ceiling deal.
Lawmakers of both parties acknowledge that the spirit of unity that marked the weeks after the shooting has given way to the more-usual partisan battles. Renewed concerns about gun control and the safety of lawmakers and aides at constituent events have similarly waned.
For the 20 staffers in Giffords’s offices – 10 in Tucson, eight in Washington and two in Sierra Vista – the shooting means carrying on despite the absences of Giffords and Zimmerman, and with the added burden of an increased workload.
“We’ve really had a much heavier load,” Kimble said, noting that Giffords’s higher profile has led to roughly a 20 percent increase from last year in the number of constituent requests. “We’re doing the best we can do the work that Gabby would want us to do.”
At 8 a.m. on Jan. 10 – 46 hours after the shooting -- Giffords’s offices opened as scheduled, Kimble said. Since then, staffers have continued handling constituent requests.
Lawmakers and volunteers brought lunch to the offices and helped handle the phones in the weeks and months after the shooting, and Giffords’s staff has worked with the offices of other members of Congress to introduce measures on homeland security, health care and other issues.
One of the lawmakers who aided Giffords’s office was Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), a freshman who met the Arizona Democrat during the swearing-in ceremony for the 112th Congress three days before the shooting.
Clarke said he was at the Detroit Auto Show the day Giffords was shot and decided to head on a plane to Tucson to offer his assistance after hearing the news.
“I was at the auto show that day, that morning, and I thought about it, and I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here right now? The poor staff, they probably need somebody there that’s a member of Congress so that if people need to talk to somebody, I can be there,’” he said.
“I just wanted to be there in the office to help out, to talk to people, things like that,” he added. “But the whole office, it was a shock – they were so upbeat, and everybody was working. I’d just assumed people were just devastated, so I could be there and make a difference. But they really had things going.”
Giffords has traveled to Tucson three times since the shooting: once on Father’s Day, once on Labor Day and once last week, when she and her husband visited Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to serve Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s certainly very emotional,” Kimble said of the times Giffords has met with Tucson office staff. “All of us are very close. ...It’s very inspiring to all of us to see how hard she’s working.”
Zimmerman’s death “has really left an enormous hole in this office,” Kimble said, noting that many other staffers looked to him as their leader.
Of the four staffers besides Zimmerman who were with Giffords on the day of the shooting, one has moved away for family reasons; the other three – including two who were wounded in the attack – remain with the congresswoman’s office.
The Tucson office is about to complete a memorial to Zimmerman, who Kimble noted was among the first staffers Giffords hired in 2006.
“We want people to know he’s an essential part of the work we do every day,” Kimble said.
This post has been updated since it was first published.