Tucson shootings: How Gabrielle Giffords's event for constituents turned to tragedy
Monday, January 10, 2011; 4:21 AM
TUCSON - The invitation from Gabrielle Giffords arrived via Twitter on a bright Saturday morning in the southern Arizona desert: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later."
The House had wrapped up business at noon Friday and would not begin its first full week of work until Tuesday morning - plenty of time for Giffords, just sworn in for her third term in Congress, to jet back to Tucson for a weekend of retail politics. Giffords made the 2,300-mile trip most weekends and had it down to a science. She could squeeze six events into two days and still have time to hang out with friends and family before heading back.
Former labor secretary Robert Reich, who delivered a toast at her wedding, said Giffords, 40, "moves at a velocity that exceeds that of anyone else in Washington."
On Saturday just before 10 a.m., she drove her SUV from her midtown house to the Safeway on North Oracle Road, just outside the Tucson city limits in one of the area's first suburbs, Casas Adobes, where houses have Spanish-tiled roofs and palm trees and paloverdes, the Arizona state tree, frame the horizon.
Under a clear sky, the morning beckoned those who needed help from their woman in Washington - and those who just wanted to say hi to a moderate Democrat, one who seemed like a salve against the bug-eyed shouting that filled so much time on the cable talk shows.
Steven Rayle came just to meet his congresswoman; he liked her moderate approach. Christina-Taylor Green, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001, came to learn more about her government; the third-grader had just been elected to student council and could use a few tips. Gabe Zimmerman was there to work; he organized Giffords's forums. A social worker by training, he was engaged to marry a nurse. They planned to explore Greece and Turkey on their honeymoon.
Jared Lee Loughner took a cab to the Safeway, police said. The fare was $14, but the passenger had only a $20 and the cabbie didn't have change. They walked into the supermarket to break the bill.
The woman who brought these people together believed that, especially in this place where few have deep roots, it was essential to create a sense of community and show that government could be more than a target of anger. Gabby Giffords was troubled by her last campaign, by an atmosphere in which Sarah Palin's Web site put Giffords's district in the cross hairs of a gunsight, in which someone shot a pellet through the glass door of Giffords's Tucson office, and in which her Republican opponent invited supporters to a Saturday morning campaign event where they could shoot an M16 and "Get on Target for Victory in November."
Giffords told friends that she came home nearly every weekend, even before House Democrats started organizing "Congress on Your Corner" events, to try to build a sense of hope in a place just 78 miles from the Mexican border, where the debate over immigration had turned neighbor against neighbor.
She and her husband, Mark Kelly, were talking about having a baby, even though they didn't get to spend a lot of time together. Based in Houston, Kelly is an astronaut getting ready for a shuttle launch in April.
They met in China, as young leaders selected to learn about U.S.-China relations. He was a married Navy captain; she, a state senator who was dating someone. A year later, they met again, and by then Kelly was divorced and Giffords had broken up with her boyfriend. They began seeing more of each other, and when Kelly was prepping for the launch of Discovery in 2006, Giffords selected a song that Mission Control could use to wake him each morning. "It's a beautiful day," U2 sang. "Sky falls, you feel like it's a beautiful day. Don't let it get away."