TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — On a bittersweet day for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the outgoing congresswoman spent her final hours in Tucson as the city’s U.S. representative, finishing the meeting she started on the morning she was shot and bidding farewell to constituents who supported her through a long recovery.
Giffords, wearing an olive-green jacket and a bright turquoise scarf, spent time Monday at her office with other survivors of the rampage that killed six people and injured 13. She hugged and talked with survivors, including Suzi Hileman, who was shot three times while trying to save her young friend and neighbor, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. The little girl died from a gunshot wound to the chest.
Others who met with Giffords included Pat Maisch, hailed as a hero for wrestling a gun magazine from the shooter that day, and Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’ intern at the time who helped save her life by trying to stop her bleeding until an ambulance arrived.
“It was very touching,” said Maisch, who was not hurt in the attack. “I thanked her for her service, wished her well, and she just looked beautiful.”
Giffords announced Sunday that she would resign from Congress this week to focus on her recovery. Maisch said she was sad that Giffords would no longer be her congresswoman.
“But I want her to do what’s best for her,” she said. “She’s got to take care of herself.”
However, an upbeat Giffords hinted that her departure from public life might be temporary. In a message sent on Twitter, she said: “I will return & we will work together for Arizona & this great country.”
In her last act in Tucson as a congresswoman, Giffords also planned to visit one of her favorite charities, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
The food bank established the Gabrielle Giffords Family Assistance Center with $215,000 it received in the wake of the shooting. Giffords’ husband and former astronaut Mark Kelly said that the best way for the public to help Giffords was to donate to one of her favorite charities.
The center has helped 900 families get on food stamps in the last year and helps the needy seek assistance with housing, insurance, clothing and other basic needs.
“It’s a wonderful thing that she gets to come here and see the center we built,” said Bill Carnegie, CEO of the food bank. “But it’s also her exit from Congress. I’m concerned about the future.”
Giffords’ aides had to yell at TV cameramen and reporters who surrounded the congresswoman as she arrived at the food bank, telling them to back up. Giffords didn’t bat an eye, but walked with confidence through the crowd and into the food bank, where she promptly hugged Carnegie and others.
When she saw the center that is named in her honor, she said “Wow” and “Awesome.”
Giffords did not address reporters at the center and planned to head to the airport right after her visit. She was expected in Washington on Tuesday for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
In her announcement Sunday, Giffords said that by stepping down, she was doing what is best for Arizona.
“I don’t remember much from that horrible day, but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice,” she said in a video posted online.
The video showed a close-up of Giffords gazing directly at the camera and speaking in a voice that is both firm and halting.
“I have more work to do on my recovery,” the congresswoman said at the end of the two-minute message, appearing to strain to communicate.
Giffords was shot in the head as she was meeting with constituents outside a grocery store. Her recovery progressed to the point that she was able to walk into the House chamber last August to cast a vote.
Giffords’ resignation set up a free-for-all in a competitive district.
She could have stayed in office for another year even without seeking re-election, but her decision to resign scrambles the political landscape. Arizona must hold a special primary and general election to find someone to finish out her term, as well as hold the regular primary and general election later this year.
Giffords would have been heavily favored to win another term.
She was elected to her third term just two months before she was shot, winning by only about 1 percent over a tea party Republican. But she gained immense public support during her recovery.
Several Republicans and Democrats have been mentioned as possible candidates, with some in the GOP already forming exploratory committees. Republicans who have expressed interest include state Sen. Frank Antenori and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton, among others.
Democratic state lawmakers have been mentioned as possible candidates, as has the name of Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, although he has publicly quashed such speculation.
“There are going to be a lot of people mentioned,” said Arizona Democratic Party chairman Andrei Cherny. “I think the best rule in situations like this is, ‘The folks who are talking don’t know, and the folks who know aren’t talking.’”
Gov. Jan Brewer will likely call for the special primary election to be held in April, followed by a general election in June. Before the cycle begins for the regular election, the district will be remapped.
The regular primary for the new district, which will cover most of the current district’s territory, was scheduled for August.
The Republican governor acknowledged that the twin election cycles were going to put “a lot of pressure on a lot of people awfully quick,” because voters will be filling Giffords’ current seat, followed by elections for newly redrawn districts.
A state Democratic party official who met with her Sunday also suggested that her political career could resume in the future.
Jim Woodbrey, a senior vice chairman of the state party, said Giffords strongly implied at a meeting that she would seek office again someday. He said the decision to resign came after much thought.
“It was Gabby’s individual decision, and she was not in any condition to make that decision five months ago,” he said. “So I think waiting so that she could make an informed decision on her own was the right thing to do.”
– Associated Press writers Bob Christie and Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix and David Espo in Washington contributed to this story.