Personality, pugnacity have made Giffords a rising Democratic star

By Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:32 PM

By 11:32 a.m. Friday, the House began its final roll-call vote of a tumultuous first week of the 112th Congress. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords made her usual break for the airport and, a touch more than 61/2 hours later, landed in Tucson.

"Home sweet home. Thank you America Airlines for another uneventful trip," she tweeted at 6:05 p.m.

It had been a typical week for the Arizona Democrat - 4,000 miles traveled, an op-ed published, a national TV interview, several media interviews in her home state, 11 votes cast in the House, and an assortment of other legislative duties, including reading the First Amendment of the Constitution during a symbolic presentation on the chamber floor.

She did it all in a style that had come to define her approach as she began her third term in Congress: head down, not flashy, even-keeled but not a pushover, willing to fight for her causes.

"She's very easygoing, very even-tempered," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), who has worked with Giffords to place more National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexico border. Poe said that beneath the pleasant demeanor is an aggressive lawmaker who knows how to get things done. "She's feisty," he said. "She's a very determined woman."

That combination of personality and pugnacity, as well as her abilities to win in a tough district and to raise a lot of money, have made Giffords a rising star in her party. She has been mentioned regularly to run for higher office, possibly taking on one of Arizona's senators, John McCain or Jon Kyl, both Republicans.

In her time in Washington, Giffords has focused on national security issues, particularly the fight against terrorism, but also what she calls "four other stealth threats to our national security." Those include securing the Mexican border from drug smuggling and illegal immigration, finding alternative energy sources, improving funding for higher education in science and technology, and reducing the $14 trillion federal debt.

She has also been concerned about the nation's political discourse. In a congratulatory e-mail she sent last week to Trey Grayson, a former Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky who was named director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, Giffords expressed concern about the polarizing nature of politics.

"After you get settled, I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation," the congresswoman told Grayson, who released a copy of the e-mail to CNN.

"I am one of only 12 Democrats left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down," she wrote.

Giffords and Grayson became friends during the mid-2000s, through the Aspen Institute's Rodel Fellowship program. Still a state senator, Giffords also got to know Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat who became one of her closest friends on Capitol Hill.

Wasserman Schultz became a mentor to Giffords when she decided to run for Congress. Wasserman Schultz was helping to recruit candidates and Giffords was just the kind of person they were looking for: young, dynamic and middle of the road.

"We're just kindred spirits," Wasserman Schultz said. "Washington can be a lonely place, and it's really nice to have someone you can count on and lean on."

The two lawmakers vacation together with their families and have visited each other's districts. On a rare night off when both women are in Washington, they meet for dinner.

Giffords never made a habit of staying in town any more than she needed to, skipping the night and weekend party circuit in favor of either going home or to Houston, where her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, lives.

"As soon as she can get to the airport, she is either on her way to see her husband or on her way to her district," Poe said.

On the border

When Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) served as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, he turned to Giffords for her expertise about the Mexican border.

At Giffords's invitation, he traveled to her district in July to hold a town hall meeting in Douglas, a border town in Arizona's remote southeast corner. He had an opportunity to talk to ranchers and landowners, including the widow of Robert Krentz, a farmer on the border who was killed on his property.

"I got a chance to hear their side of the story, but I also saw how Gabby interacted with local people," Thompson said. "It was eye-opening to me, how many people she knew and who knew her. She was not a stranger even in the most desolate parts of her district."

Before long, Thompson saw how Giffords interacted with her fellow lawmakers. In an appearance before a panel of House Democrats who were deciding on committee assignments, she grilled him about what he had learned back in Douglas.

"She epitomizes representative government," said Thompson, who won the assignment. "Unfortunately, it really now has put her life in jeopardy."

Giffords always seized opportunities to take one of her colleagues to her district to see the border.

Last Wednesday, as she posed with new House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for a ceremonial swearing-in, she pleaded with the Republican to come, too.

"Invited him to visit the border. Hope he comes," she tweeted.

Giffords has become one of the most prodigious fundraisers among House Democrats, collecting $9.4 million since she opened her first congressional campaign account five years ago, according to federal records.

She works out of the less-than-distinguished seventh-floor quarters of the Longworth House Office Building, serving on three committees: Armed Services, which helped her assist two military bases in her district; Foreign Affairs, on which she traveled to war-torn regions such as Afghanistan; and Science and Technology, on which she oversaw NASA, the agency that employs her husband.

On the morning of Jan. 4, a day before her third term began, Giffords alerted her Twitter followers to an op-ed she wrote in the Arizona Republic outlining her priorities in Afghanistan, immigration and energy - but she highlighted partisan tension as the area that must be resolved first.

"When it comes to national security, we cannot succumb to partisan bickering," Giffords wrote. "The challenges - and the cost of failure - are too great."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company