Gabrielle Giffords: Congresswoman seen as rising Democratic star

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 8:28 PM

Gabrielle Giffords, a rising star of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, was elected to Congress in 2006 and has built a reputation as a pragmatic moderate who supported President Obama's health-care reform package in 2010.

She is part of the Blue Dog coalition of centrist Democrats and, as a former executive in her family's tire dealership, was a strong proponent of small-business interests.

Facing a tough reelection battle in 2010, Giffords, 40, was one of the candidates specifically targeted for defeat by Sarah Palin and the tea party movement. In March 2010, a glass door at her Tucson office was shattered by what was believed to be a shot from a pellet gun or air pistol.

Her 2010 Republican opponent, 29-year-old former Marine Sgt. Jesse Kelly, held campaign events under the slogan "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office" and invited his supporters to "shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

Giffords won the election by two percentage points.

She often touted her support of the Second Amendment to voters and said she had been a longtime gun owner. In 2007, she married Mark Kelly, a Navy fighter pilot and astronaut who has been on three space shuttle missions. Giffords is the only member of Congress with a spouse on active duty with the military.

Giffords, a third-generation Arizonan, was born June 8, 1970, in Tucson. Early in life, she was inspired by Arizona-born former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and registered as a Republican when she turned 18.

She graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., in 1993 with a degree in Latin American history and sociology and studied in Mexico for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. She speaks Spanish and owns a house in Mexico.

In 1996, Giffords received a master's degree in regional planning from Cornell University. She worked for Price Waterhouse in New York for a short time before returning to Tucson in 1996 to take over her family's tire dealership.

She revived the business before selling it in 2000 and then founded a property management business.

In 1999, dismayed by the conservative social positions of the Republican Party, she changed her affiliation to the Democratic Party. A year later, she was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives.

In 2002, when she was 32, she became the youngest woman elected to the state Senate in Arizona. She supported technology and mental health issues as a state legislator and was named woman of the year by a Tucson business magazine in 2005.

When 11-term Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe announced that he would not seek reelection in Arizona's 8th Congressional District in 2006, Giffords mounted a strong primary campaign and won the general election with 54 percent of the vote. She was the first Jewish woman elected to Congress from Arizona.

Giffords's grandfather Akiba Hornstein, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, moved to Arizona from New York in the 1940s and founded El Campo Tire. His childhood nickname was Gifford, and he legally changed his name to "Gif Giffords" to avoid anti-Semitism.

Giffords's mother is not Jewish, but the congresswoman has always identified herself as Jewish and is a member of a Reform synagogue in Tucson. One of her grandmothers had the surname of Paltrowitz, later shortened to Paltrow. The congresswoman is a second cousin of actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

This week, Giffords was one of the Democrats to vote against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as Democratic minority leader.

After winning reelection in 2008, Giffords became a strong advocate of immigration reform. Her district, with 114 miles of international border, is one of 10 congressional districts along the U.S.-Mexico line.

After an Arizona rancher was killed in March 2010, Giffords called on Obama to send National Guard troops to patrol the border.

In addition to health care and military matters, Giffords became a strong proponent of solar energy and attended the international climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. She often points out that Arizona has 300 days of sunshine a year.

"We have the land, the technology, the concentrated sunshine," she has said. "I want to see south Arizona be the 'Solarcon Valley' of the United States."

Giffords has long been an avid motorcyclist and is a member of the Congressional Motorcycle Caucus.

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