Ten miles down the road from the Safeway supermarket where he nearly lost his life 15 months ago, Ron Barber was speaking to a group of supporters about what he would do if he is elected to represent them in Congress.
It was the same kind of thing that then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), his boss, was doing in the Safeway parking lot 454 days earlier, when a bullet, fired at point-blank range, passed through her head, almost killing her. Two other bullets, fired from the same gun, struck Barber in the thigh and the left cheek.
Although the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had no apparent political motivation, the Tucson attack marked the beginning of a period of national soul-searching about the coarsening tone of American politics, leading to calls for more moderation and compromise and less heated political rhetoric.
Barber was then the district director on Giffords’s congressional staff and, as he explained to his supporters this month, his reasons for running to succeed her have everything, and nothing, to do with the shootings that also left six dead and 12 others wounded, including Giffords.
“We were not defined by the day of January the 8th,” he told the group at his campaign headquarters in downtown Tucson. “We were defined by what happened afterward . . . the passion, kindness, goodwill, prayers.
“All of those things helped those of us who were there that day heal, but they’ve also set the tone for who we are,” Barber said.
In what is expected to be one of the most hotly-contested House races in the country, Barber has decided to build his campaign around the simple idea of a new civility in politics, making a strategic decision to renounce the rancor that the Tucson shootings have come to represent, and betting instead on the outpouring of generosity that followed.
Given the current political climate, the approach carries some risks: It not only prevents a candidate from exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses but also precludes the kind of counterattacks that campaigns often resort to in defense of their candidates.
Barber acknowledges that the focus on civility may seem a little unorthodox, but he is committed to it. “I know it sounds kind of Pollyannaish, but that’s who I am,” he said.
Yet if anyone has the political capital to pull it off, it may be Ron Barber, in Arizona’s new Second Congressional District.
The bullet that pierced Barber’s cheek exited through the back of his neck, barely missing a carotid artery. He endured more than a year of physical therapy to regain the use of his leg and he had to undergo psychological counseling to address symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Arizona Republicans have already begun hitting Barber. According to the Arizona Daily Star, the state party has spent nearly $110,000 this month on mailers and robocalls charging that his “flawed policies” would hurt the economy and Arizona’s families.
“I’m sure there will be negative attacks,” Barber said. “But we’ve pledged that we’re not going to do it with our campaign. And I’m going to stick to it. It’s so important to me that we try to change how we engage with each other, and I’m not going to let anything steer me off that path.”
Democrats said that whatever Barber’s strategy, he is in for a tough fight.
In 2010, Giffords won by fewer than 4,200 votes out of 283,000 cast.
“Gabby got in by a very close margin,” said Bob Grossfeld, an Arizona Democratic strategist. “And she was really a top-notch campaigner; people loved her, even the Republicans loved her. Take that out of the equation. Now you’ve got a highly competitive race with some Republicans who . . . will clearly get super-PAC assistance in order to pick up that seat. So is it going to be rough? Yes.”
One Republican strategist with knowledge of the race called Barber’s pledge to refrain from personal attacks “kind of a ridiculous promise to make,” noting that the national parties’ campaign committees and other outside groups will probably get involved and that Giffords herself “ran one of the most negative campaigns in the country” two years ago.
On Tuesday, Republicans chose Jesse Kelly as their nominee to face Barber in the June 12 special election. Kelly, 30, an Iraq war veteran, was the 2010 GOP nominee who came within 4,200 votes of ousting Giffords in a campaign that featured some of the most furious attacks of that campaign cycle.
Barber, 66, is casting himself as a reluctant candidate who reconsidered his decision not to run only after Giffords personally asked him to make a bid for the seat she vacated in January.
Kelly’s camp insists that civility will not be a problem because it expects that the race will focus on issues.
“Jesse and the campaign are going to be talking about the issues that are important to the voters,” said John Ellinwood, Kelly’s communications director. “He’s going to be talking about his proposals and solutions to grow the economy, to bring jobs back to southern Arizona and to reduce gas prices.”
Despite the familiar rhetoric, the events of January 2012 and Barber’s presence on the ballot ensure that this will not be a typical race.
“When you nearly die, as I did that morning, you really have a new appreciation of the importance of living in the moment — making sure that you’re doing things right now right,” Barber said in an interview a few weeks ago at a coffee shop down the street from his campaign headquarters. “I’ve been given a second chance, and I feel that when you get a second chance at life, you really can’t squander it.”