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Ron Barber, former Gabby Giffords aide, sees race as call to civility

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Ten miles down the road from the Safeway where he nearly lost his life last January, Ron Barber is holding court with some three dozen supporters.

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It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, 454 days since a bullet shot at point-blank range by alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner passed through former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s (D-Ariz.) head, and 454 days since two separate bullets struck Barber, then Giffords’s district director, in the left cheek and thigh.

As he explains to volunteers his reasons for running to succeed his former boss in Congress, the bespectacled, soft-spoken Barber — who until recently walked with the aid of a cane — doesn’t shy away from mentioning the shooting that took the lives of six, left 13 wounded and would forever enter into the political lexicon the name of this city in the Sonoran Desert.

But he argues that the incident that almost ended his life was actually the beginning of something greater.

“We were not defined by the day of January the 8th,” he tells the volunteers gathered at his downtown campaign headquarters for a joint event with the No. 2 House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). “We were defined by what happened afterward.”

Can a candidate in 2012 run a campaign based on civility? What if that candidate is running in one of the most competitive races in the country, in a district that saw some of the most furious attacks of the past campaign cycle?

And what does a pledge to stay civil matter, in the end, if outside groups and party committees will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars launching negative attacks on the candidates’ behalf, anyway?

Those are some of the questions surrounding the race for Giffords’s former House seat, a two-part battle that is being waged both in the June 12 special election for the remainder of the Arizona Democrat’s term as well as in the November general election for a full two-year term.

Barber, 66, a reluctant candidate who only reconsidered his decision not to run after Giffords personally asked him to make a bid for the seat she vacated in January, faces no Democratic opposition in the special election, as the field cleared soon after he made his plans known. He will likely face at least two Democratic challengers in the Aug. 28 primary for the general election.

Felicia Sonmez

The Washington Post

Ron Barber

Throughout Tucson — including at the intersection near the supermarket where last January’s shooting took place — campaign signs for the four Republicans squaring off in next week’s April 17 GOP primary to face Barber are a reminder that politics carries on. Leading the pack is Jesse Kelly, the Iraq War vet and 2010 nominee who came within about 4,000 votes of ousting Giffords two years ago.

Whichever candidate wins the June special election will have the advantage of incumbency, albeit a brief one, heading into the November general election. After redistricting, the newly-drawn 2nd District, currently known as the 8th District, will lean slightly more in Democrats’ favor. The current district, which tilts slightly Republican, was won by two percentage points by Giffords in 2010 and voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) with 52 percent in 2008.

Barber is quick to note that despite his backing by Giffords, he does not believe “anyone gets anointed” in the race. And Democrats point to Barber’s strong fundraising numbers; in the seven weeks since he announced his campaign. The former Giffords aide raised nearly $550,000, more than double the amount that any of the four Republican candidates have taken in during the first quarter of the year.

Republicans point out that the GOP candidates combined have raised more than Barber has. They also note that Kelly, 30, has the benefit of having run a competitive race in the district before, and that low-turnout special elections can be unpredictable affairs.

Barber is not the first — and certainly won’t be the last — candidate to pledge to run a positive campaign. And Kelly’s camp, too, maintains that the race is one that will be focused squarely on issues, not character attacks.

“Jesse and the campaign are going to be talking about the issues that are important to the voters,” Kelly’s communications director, John Ellinwood, said in an interview. “He’s going to be talking about his proposals and solutions to grow the economy, to bring jobs back to southern Arizona and to reduce gas prices.”

But Barber’s vow takes on a different meaning than many such pledges when viewed through the prism of Jan. 8, 2011.

As the candidate recounted to supporters last Thursday, what he believes happened in the wake of the shooting was that “this community after January 8 came together in the most phenomenal way.”

“The passion, kindness, goodwill, prayers — all of those things helped those of us who were there that day heal,” he said. “But they’ve also set the tone for who we are.”

For much of Capitol Hill — and much of the country — the day of the Tucson shooting was the beginning of a long period of soul-searching about the tone of American political discourse. Even though Loughner appears to have had no political motivation, the incident led pundits and members of Congress to ratchet down their heated rhetoric, however briefly, and to reflect on an attack that took place at an event viewed by many as central to democracy itself: the constituent meeting.

It also led the country to experience a period of unity that had eluded it since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and that has escaped it for much of the Tucson shooting’s 15-month aftermath.

Enter Barber, a candidate who would seem to have more reason than most to believe that if there’s a deeper meaning to be gleaned from the January 2011 shooting, it’s a tragic one.

The bullet that pierced his cheek exited through the back of his neck, just barely missing his carotid artery. He was only able to return to his work in Giffords’s district office last July, six months after the shooting, and has endured more than a year of grueling physical therapy to regain use of his leg as well. He has also undergone psychological counseling to cope with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet Barber says that one of his main takeaways from the shooting has been not heightened skepticism, but rather a strengthened belief in the importance of public service and of a civil tone, even in what will likely be one of the country’s most hotly-contested House races.

“When you nearly die, as I did that morning, you really have a new appreciation of the importance of living in the moment — making sure that you’re doing things right now right,” Barber said in a February interview at a coffee shop down the street from his campaign headquarters.

“I’ve been given a second chance, and I feel that when you get a second chance at life, you really can’t squander it,” he continued. “You’ve really got to make sure that you do good things for your community and for your family. And that’s, I would have to say, one of the things that I reflected on when I decided to run: that this is another opportunity to serve my community, one that I never expected to have.”

His vow to run a civil campaign is one that plays to his strength — it’s a pledge that’s as much based on his views of the aftermath of the shooting as it is rooted in Barber’s own demeanor and resume.

The British-born Barber — whose father is American and whose mother was born in Northern Ireland — was a young Air Force brat when he arrived in Tucson with his parents in 1959 and “just fell in love with the American system.”

“It’s going to sound corny, I guess, but I really think that the American political system and democratic system that we have is just second-to-none,” he says. “I really strongly believe that. And sometimes, you know, converts are the biggest advocates for the religion or even the country.”

He and his wife, Nancy, a Tucson native and post-partum doula, met in high school and have been married for 44 years. For about half that time, the couple ran a Buffalo Exchange store that sold recycled clothing, furniture and toys and also served as “a community meeting place” for Tucsonans, Barber says.

Before his five years as Giffords’s district director, Barber served as regional director for Head Start and later for Arizona’s Division of Developmental Disabilities. In both of those positions, he says he urged those with whom he worked to “have the highest respect” for the poor and those with disabilities, two groups that he argues largely “have been devalued” by society.

“They’re our clients,” Barber says he used to tell his staff. “The only reason we have a job is because of their needs.”

He first met Giffords through his work at the Division of Developmental Disabilities, and remembers the Arizona Democrat, then a young state senator, as “a really thoughtful, caring, inquisitive and curious person.”

“She was the one who would always stay afterward when we had meetings and ask questions and follow up with an e-mail,” he says.

When Giffords announced seven years ago that she was resigning from her state senate seat and running for Congress, Barber retired from his state job and signed up with the campaign — a move that, even in the wake of the shooting, he describes as “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Diminutive and genial, Barber speaks softly and, often, with a smile. He likes to talk about politics as an opportunity to bring people together rather than “an ego trip,” and he acknowledges that his work with Giffords has largely been “behind the scenes, trying to get things done without having sort of a lot of publicity around it — because I think a lot of times that’s how you get things done anyway.”

In short, Barber does not come across as a natural-born politician. But what his opponents view as a potential weakness, Barber and his supporters view as a strength — particularly at a time when they argue that Giffords’s former district and the country as a whole are in need of a more civil tone.

“Yes, I’m sure there will be negative attacks,” Barber says when asked about the tenor of the coming campaign. “But we’ve pledged that we’re not going to do it with our campaign. And I’m going to stick to it. It’s so important to me that we try to change how we engage with each other, and I’m not going to let anything steer me off that path.”

Will it matter in the end if Barber succeeds in doing so? That remains an open question.

And even though the GOP primary has yet to conclude, the attacks have already begun to fly.

Arizona Republicans have begun hitting Barber by tying him to his former boss. According to the Arizona Daily Star, the state party this month has spent nearly $50,000 on mailers and robocalls charging that Barber’s “flawed policies hurt our economy and families.”

One Republican strategist with knowledge of the race called Barber’s pledge to refrain from personal attacks “kind of a ridiculous promise to make,” noting that the national parties’ campaign committees and other outside groups will likely get involved and that Giffords herself “ran one of the most negative campaigns in the country (two years ago).”

“The playbook is there,” said the strategist, who spoke anonymously in order to candidly discuss the campaign.

Bob Grossfeld, an Arizona Democratic strategist, said in an interview that due to the district’s GOP lean, the race is “mostly framed in the sense of both Gabby and her husband are going to have to get deeply involved in the race in order to get (Barber) in.”

“Gabby got in by a very close margin,” Grossfeld said. “And she was really a top-notch campaigner; people loved her, even the Republicans loved her. Take that out of the equation. Now you’ve got a highly-competitive race with some Republicans who ... will clearly get super PAC assistance in order to pick up that seat. So is it going to be rough? Yes. I’m not sure anybody’s betting any money either way.”

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for comment on whether the House Democratic campaign arm planned to aid Barber with negative campaign ads. But top Democrats in Washington heavily lobbied Barber to run for the seat, and if Hoyer’s visit to the candidate’s headquarters last week is anything to go by, leadership is standing at the ready to jump to the candidate’s defense.

What’s also clear, though, is that the events of last January have ensured that this will be no typical race.

When he dropped by Barber’s office last week, Hoyer spoke to the crowd about Barber’s “soul” – a term not often heard on the campaign trail.

And Barber’s headquarters itself, while it has all the calendars and district maps and other trappings of a usual campaign office, also has some less-typical aspects. Hanging on the wall next to the front desk is a handmade posterboard sign in the shape of four hearts, along with a banner on top reading, “I Support Ron Barber Because...”

“He has heart, and we need more heart!” reads a message from one supporter, with a heart and a smiley face drawn next to it.

“He is a voice of reason in a sea of insanity,” reads a note from another supporter.

And, 454 days after he came within millimeters of losing his life, Barber maintains that “despite everything that’s happened, I really believe that people are good at heart.”

“I’ve become more optimistic than I was before — and I’ve always been pretty optimistic,” he says. “But seeing our community respond the way it did let me truly know that if we come together as a community, there’s nothing that we can’t do.”

“So, that’s where I’m coming from,” he adds with a laugh. “I know it sounds kind of Pollyannaish, but that’s who I am.”

© The Washington Post Company