As Congress returned to debate the repeal of the health care law, the staff of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holed up in a bustling office 2,000 miles away, paying little heed to what was going on in Washington.
Five of them were focused on opening the estimated 10,000 cards left at makeshift memorials that have grown exponentially over the past week. Others took complaints from constituents whose homes have been foreclosed on and whose Social Security benefits have run out.
As their boss recovers from a gunshot wound to the head, Giffords’ staffers are honoring her by keeping the office running, even after some witnessed the deadly grocery store attack that killed six and wounded 13.
They know how much Giffords would want to be on the floor of Congress on Tuesday as lawmakers considered repealing the health care law that the three-term Democrat passionately supported last year.
“She never wants to miss a day, she never wants to miss a vote,” Giffords spokesman Mark Kimble said. “We all know that she really loves being there, but that’s out of our hands now.”
Giffords’ staffers met the night of the shooting Jan. 8 to discuss what to do next, and they opened the office two days later. “That’s what Gabby would have wanted us to do,” Kimble said.
The office is accustomed to dealing with turmoil.
The location was vandalized in March just a few hours after the House vote to overhaul the nation’s health care system. Someone either kicked in or shot out a glass door and a side window, and Giffords’ press secretary C.J. Karamargin said at the time staffers were shaken and worried.
Kimble said the office has had no threats or other problems since the shooting — just thousands of people showing up to offer a hug or leave a card for Giffords.
Ten days after the attack, a steady stream of people visited the memorials at the office and at the hospital where Giffords remained hospitalized in serious condition Tuesday. Doctors said she continues to improve physically and neurologically.
At Giffords’ office, workers are recording the names, contact information and messages in each card to document them and send thank you notes later. The cards will be given to Giffords when she is able to read them, Kimble said.
Meanwhile, the man who touched off much of the debate over the tone in politics, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, has been getting so much hate mail that his office’s computer system nearly crashed. Workers shut down the e-mail system temporarily; it is now back up.
Dupnik blamed a toxic political environment for the attack, drawing criticism from opponents who said he made a rush to judgment. Investigators have since said that 22-year-old Jared Loughner is mentally unstable and was not apparently motivated by a partisan politics. He’s locked up in a federal jail as investigators try to figure out what prompted him to open fire at the Giffords’ event.
Most of the wounded are out of the hospital, and most of those killed have been buried. Still, Elaine Resnick, a 78-year-old retired lawyer, came back to the office memorial a third time Tuesday morning to read signs and cards.
“I’m drawn to this because of the heart that Tucson shows,” she said.
When asked whether the tone in Washington will be any different, Resnick said: “My honest answer? No. It will not change.”
Right now, that doesn’t matter to Kimble’s staff.
“I don’t know that any of us has tried to step back and put this in political perspective, and I haven’t heard anyone in the office discuss political discourse since this happened,” Kimble said. “We’re focused on that woman 2 miles away at the hospital. We’ll let other people talk about politics.”