It is in her constitution to charge hard at the very thing she’s been told is impossible and out of line.
Now, in her first bid for political office, she is going after the congressional seat that would seem most out of reach. Running as a Republican, she aims to replace the beloved Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic congresswoman who was gunned down outside a Safeway on a Saturday morning while meeting with constituents, a crime that lacerated this community and horrified the nation.
To do that, McSally has to defeat the man who won a special election in June, Ron Barber, who was Giffords’s district director and was shot in the head that day.
What kind of person runs against that legacy?
“Pioneer, leader, servant” is how the retired colonel, 46, introduces herself to those she seeks to represent in one of America’s flintiest swing districts.
“Am I nuts?” is what she first asked herself after plunging into a world that is as chaotic as the military is structured.
“The special election was about the legacy, and November is about the best representation for this district,” is what she had answered at the last event, when a supporter at a small meeting gingerly brought up “the Gabby factor.”
Now, at dinner, with her elderly dog at her feet and her nephew/driver/yard-sign toter eyeing her leftovers, McSally relates how she went from being a professor in Germany in January, teaching a course on the Arab Spring, to being a candidate a week after Giffords resigned.
It is a brash story about the advice she sought, heard and then ignored — to come home to the house she bought in 1994 when stationed here at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, to put down her roots and run for school board or be a precinct chairman.
Don’t do it, you can’t be successful, you’ll be labeled a loser, she was told. Don’t blow your chances, with that impressive résumé and smarts and personal charisma, to be a political star. Take the conventional path.
“I had nothing to lose; I already had quit my job. So I said, ‘Now, what do I have to do? Probably file some paperwork, right?’ ” McSally, who is single, says with a grin.
Fighting a legacy
Ron Barber has the power of legacy on his side. He’s the link to Giffords’s fighting spirit and her care for her constituents.
Barber was by Giffords’s side on Jan. 8, 2011, as was usually the case since he had signed on as her district director in 2007. Before that, the contours of his life were prosaic.
A genial-looking man with gray hair and a gray beard, he had worked for more than 30 year as an administrator in the Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilities. He was married to his high school sweetheart. They had two daughters and four grandchildren — all of them in the Tucson area. He and his wife had a small side business, in which parents could trade and buy children’s toys and clothing.