It’s harder than ever to find heroes in politics, but if one springs to mind, it’s Gabrielle Giffords. A rising star stopped by a bullet, Giffords’s journey from the day she was shot in a Tucson parking lot to the moment she resigned her House seat made her a hero to many, including her Democratic and Republican colleagues, who understood the raw courage it took to give up the dream of serving in Congress to spend all of her time learning to walk, talk and live again.
The race to fill Gifford’s now-vacant seat takes place next Tuesday, when Ron Barber, a former congressional aide to Giffords, faces Republican Jesse Kelly, a Marine veteran who ran an aggressive race against Giffords in 2010, complete with an ad telling Arizona voters to “Send a Warrior to Congress” as a fatigue-clad Kelly held a gun.
Kelly’s political attacks on Giffords in 2010 make him a villain to many Democrats today, but it’s an ad from Democrats released Monday that seems beneath the dignity that Giffords herself showed in her tough 2010 reelection campaign and throughout her time in the House.
The ad, paid for by the Super PAC backing House Democrats, splices video of Kelly from 2010 (and labels it as 2010 video) when he called Giffords a “hero of nothing.” The words are painful to hear, knowing what would happen to the congresswoman five months later, but they are also taken wildly out of context for the purposes of the race taking place next week.
The full video from 2010 shows Kelly at a rally in the district taking Giffords to task for voting for a host of Democratic measures, including health-care reform. “And now she stands there with that smile and pretends to be some kind of hometown hero,” Kelly said. “She’s a hero of nothing. She’s brought bankruptcy to this nation. And we are going to bring unemployment to her.”
Kelly’s rhetoric was hot, and the crowd he was speaking to loved it, spontaneously applauding throughout his remarks. The delight the crowd got when Kelly called Giffords a “big-spending San Francisco liberal” who “pretends to be a patriot” is especially chilling and it gives a window into the wrath of voters that Giffords dealt with in her district at the height of the mid-term elections, when rage seemed to replace reason at political events across the country.
Giffords was one of the few moderate Democrats who held on to her seat that year, pulling a victory out with just over 1 percent of the vote. But she moved on after the race with a commitment to represent her entire district, not just the ones who voted for her. On the first day of the new congressional session, Giffords joined the freshmen Republicans to read portions of the Constitution aloud on the House floor.
Hers was the First Amendment, which protects political speech, no matter how offensive, and the right of the American people to freely assemble, worship and petition their government, even after a campaign in which she was booed off a stage, accused of pretending to be a patriot and called “a hero to no one.”
That spirit of service and, well, patriotism is the standard that Giffords set and is the measure Republicans and Democrats should meet in their efforts to fill her seat that was made vacant by the national tragedy that unfolded around her in Tucson that day in 2011.
In her party’s emotional attempt to protect her seat, it’s easy to see why they would want to show Jesse Kelly trashing her today, but misleading voters is the worst way to protect the legacy that Giffords paid so dearly to leave behind.
Patricia Murphy is the founder of Citizen Jane Politics and a contributor to the Daily Beast. Previously, she covered Congress for Politics Daily.