She loves motorcycles and yoga, and is as comfortable in a business suit walking the halls of Congress as she is in leather riding gear at the famed Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. She holds a master’s degree from an Ivy League university, yet can mount a tire in a flash.
Pretty and petite, sometimes soft-spoken, she will take on even her most ardent adversaries and try talking them down with a firm hand but also a smile.
Said one friend of Gabrielle Giffords: “She really pretty much defies a lot of description.”
She has also defied the odds in the days since a would-be assassin’s bullet left her fighting for her life — and still somehow hanging on.
A week ago, few outside of Arizona or the Beltway had heard of the 40-year-old congresswoman who has, in tragedy, become a rallying point for unity and peace over the ugliness of politics. Now a nation grieves for her, a community prays for her, and friends shift between laughter and tears as they share memories of the Gabby they knew before — and anguish over her unknown tomorrow.
“I was driving back from California when I got the phone call about what was going on. It kicked you in the stomach,” said the local sheriff, Clarence Dupnik. “I was told she probably wasn’t going to survive, and then I got very angry, and I’m still angry.”
Dupnik met Giffords a decade ago when she first ran for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. “I thought at that time that this was a young lady that was going to go somewhere. I became one of her supporters, she became one of mine,” he said. “And we became friends.”
It was like that with so many who met Giffords during her ascent from Tucson businesswoman to state representative and senator and then, beginning in 2006, Congress.
Acquaintance or “colleague” were never words that seemed to fit Giffords, a politician who prefers hugs over handshakes. Even voters who met her only a few times, if ever, came to feel as though she were a friend.
“She’s very real,” special-ed teacher Denise Woods said after visiting a memorial outside of the congresswoman’s office laden with candles, flowers and photographs of Giffords with women in lab coats, a veteran at a motorcycle rally and standing with an elderly couple.
“She was just a beautiful person,” said Woods. “She is, not was … She is a beautiful person.”
She is a local girl through and through, a third-generation Tucsonan who attended public high school here. She went on to bigger things elsewhere — a Fulbright scholarship in Mexico, graduate school at Cornell University, a position at Price Waterhouse in New York City — but returned home when her father fell ill to take over the family’s chain of tire repair shops, which her grandfather founded in the late 1940s.
She was 26 at the time, and immersed herself in learning the business, said Mark Kimble, one of Giffords’ Tucson staff members.
“She didn’t know anything about cars and the tire business, and she really threw herself into it. She went out into the tire bays and learned how to mount tires, learned everything about how to work on a car. And she was very proud of that, that she knew that business from the ground up, that she wasn’t just a figurehead running it,” he said.
Later, when Kimble invited Giffords to the Indianapolis 500, she was almost more interested in the race car tires than the race itself.
She could be a bit of a “nerd” that way, said former Arizona state Sen. Ken Cheuvront, who shared a house with Giffords and fellow lawmaker Linda Lopez when they served together in the Legislature.
Giffords was the policy wonk in the group, often working late to read up on favorite issues such as the environment and solar energy while Cheuvront and Lopez gathered for fun and drinks during their Monday “family” nights.
“She’d always be late. We’d always yell at her,” said Cheuvront. “It was like, ‘Enough already.’ She just worked, worked, worked, worked.”
Friends were always trying to set Giffords up on dates, but no one ever seemed quite the right fit for the sharp politician who also shot guns, rode horses, owned a motorcycle and fantasized about going to the big Sturgis rally in South Dakota. (When she finally did make it there, she called Kimble and told him to go to the Internet. There was Giffords, clad in black leather, waving over a Webcam.)
Soon, Cheuvront and other friends began hearing about someone new — an astronaut named Mark Kelly, whom Giffords met in 2003 during a young leaders’ forum in China. For a while they were just friends, exchanging e-mails and phone calls long-distance between his home in Houston and hers in Arizona. After a first “date” that seemed in every way Giffords (she invited Kelly to join her on a tour of a state prison), the romance blossomed.
“He’s a man’s man,” said Cheuvront, “and that’s exactly what she was looking for.”
They married on a November evening in 2007 at an organic vegetable farm amid the mesquite and desert mountains of the Santa Cruz Valley, south of Tucson. It was a modest ceremony, with maybe 150 people in attendance, including some dignitaries — Kelly’s fellow astronauts and one of Giffords’ mentors, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
Carol West, a former Tucson city councilwoman who once recruited Giffords to serve on the public water board, was also there.
“I was laughing my head off when I was reading the paper about this ‘prestigious’ wedding,” she said, recalling the banquet of steaks, salad and baked potatoes. Most of the guests, she said, were “people like us. Ordinary people. People who meant a lot to Gabby. She wasn’t into fame.”
By then Giffords was in Congress, splitting her time between Washington, D.C. and Arizona. Kelly still lived in Houston. They saw each other whenever, and wherever, they could.
Kimble once asked his boss about that — how the couple could endure careers that kept them apart so much. She told him they did it because both were dedicated to their jobs and to “doing things to improve this country.”
“It wasn’t some speech,” he added. “This was just to me.”
In his only statement since Saturday’s attack, Kelly said that his wife was “doing what she loved most — hearing from her constituents” when a gunman opened fire, wounding her, 13 others and killing six people. “Serving southern Arizonans is her passion, and nothing makes her more proud than representing them in Congress.”
Until this last election, Giffords, a three-term Democrat, had garnered easy victories in a congressional district that can lean conservative. She maintained that popularity by staking out centrist views on a number of issues and sometimes bucking the party line.
On illegal immigration, a huge issue in a district that stretches south to the Mexico border, Giffords placed a premium on increasing border security through the deployment of National Guard troops as well as more Border Patrol agents.
But she also was highly critical of a state law that would require police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person’s immigration status if there’s reasonable suspicion the person is in the country illegally. She supported legislation called the DREAM Act that would grant young illegal immigrants a route to legal status.
Giffords backed the stimulus package designed to jump-start the economy. She said it wasn’t a perfect bill, but that standing by wasn’t an option. She also voted for legislation designed to expand health insurance coverage, a vote that the National Republican Congressional Committee likened to “pulling the plug on her own political career.”
In the past two years, Giffords chaired a House subcommittee on space and aeronautics where she was a strong defender of NASA’s human space program, saying its work helped define America in the eyes of the rest of the world.
She praised the Obama administration’s budget request for NASA for the current fiscal year because it included more funding for key programs, but took issue with a decision to do away with the goal of returning astronauts to the moon. The administration sought to replace the effort with one that would send astronauts to an asteroid and then on to Mars. Giffords complained that the replacement effort was poorly defined.
“It’s simply unfair to ask the American people to hand over billions of dollars for something that isn’t even detailed enough to qualify for a loan from a loan shark,” she said in February.
After barely holding onto her seat in last year’s race against a tea party-backed candidate, Giffords appeared to start the new year out by trying to put a little distance between herself and Democratic Party leaders.
When it came time to vote for a new House speaker, a job that went to Republican John Boehner, Giffords supported Rep. John Lewis over outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She also introduced a bill that would reduce the salary of members of Congress by 5 percent.
“Every piece of legislation she supported, it wasn’t of a partisan nature; it was what she felt was in the best interest of her constituents,” said former U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell.
In a November victory speech posted on YouTube, Giffords pointed to her own family as the source of her not-easy-to-pigeonhole views.
“It’s the values that I grew up with — from very conservative grandparents on one side and very liberal grandparents on the other, a mother and father who taught me that you’ve got to respect one another, and you work together, and you collaborate,” she said.
On Jan. 5, Giffords took the oath of office for her third term in Congress. The following day when House members, many of them Republicans, took to the floor to read the Constitution, Giffords joined in, reciting the First Amendment that promises all Americans the right to free speech and to assemble “peaceably.”
Some friends now see that as an ironic precursor to what happened Saturday, when she was gunned down in front of a supermarket while doing just that — meeting one-on-one with constituents to allow them to have their say, for better or worse.
Kimble stood only a few feet from his friend when she was shot through the head. In the hours that followed, law officers approached him — their eyes filled with tears — to express their condolences and disbelief.
“One deputy said, ‘I can’t understand why anyone would want to shoot her. She was such a nice person,’” Kimble recalled. “He had met her at some event as a private citizen and was so moved — just by meeting her once.”
“People aren’t reacting here because she’s a congresswoman,” added Democratic state Rep. Steve Farley of Tucson. “It’s because she’s one of us.”
As a sign hung at her district office reads, “No one here is a stranger, for Gabby is Arizona’s favorite daughter.”
Those who knew her, and many who didn’t, flock to the memorial. They bring flowers and stand in silence, some wiping tears. Drivers who pass by tap their horns. One held up a peace sign. Among the candles and teddy bears and pictures are dozens of cards and letters and signs, most addressed to “Gabby.”
The nickname wasn’t just an abbreviation of her given name but also a nod to the congresswoman’s tendency to talk and the familiarity so many felt with her, Kimble said.
“Everyone who meets her feels like they’ve known her forever, and they are the single most important person in her life,” he said.
Kimble and Giffords’ other friends aren’t all that surprised by the doctors’ reports these past days, that Giffords has been able to raise two fingers and even gave surgeons at University Medical Center a thumbs-up. Nor are they surprised that she’s tried to pull out her breathing tube or that she has so far held stable, despite a trauma that can kill instantly. It’s just Gabby, they said.
The tough tomboy they all know is still fighting, so very hard.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., and Amanda Lee Myers in Tucson, Ariz., contributed to this report.