Optimism reigned after U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ first interview since her assassination attempt, both for her recovery and her political future.
Giffords’ interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “20/20” on Nov. 14 provided the most comprehensive look of how far she’s come since suffering a gunshot wound to the head on Jan. 8. And a message to her constituents that her office posted online the following day showed how much she’d built on that progress in just two weeks since her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, told Sawyer he hoped to hear his wife talking in multiple complete sentences again.
The Tucson Democrat told Sawyer she wanted to run for reelection if she was “better.” And clearly Giffords is far from fully recovered. But while she struggled to find the right words, many politicos believe she’ll be ready to run for another term, if she wants it.
“You get the sense that she is really, fully comprehending everything that’s going on there. The struggle is actually being able to express that to the public,” said Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “It’s going to be a while for her to be able to make up her mind (about running) and I think it’s our job to give her the time to be able to do that. But to me, it seems like she’s going to.”
The progress Giffords showed was all made in just 10 months, Farley said, and by the time of the May 30 filing deadline for candidates, she’ll have six more months of recovery behind her. Giffords said in the interview that she’s still doing two hours a day of therapy.
Farley was not alone in his assessment that speaking is a far bigger problem for Giffords than thinking and understanding what’s happening around her. Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, said he doesn’t think Giffords has made up her mind whether to run again. But if she wants to run, Heinz thinks she’ll be able to.
“The problem seems to be more mechanical,” said Heinz, a Tucson doctor.
Giffords’ Nov. 15 audio message to her supporters, which was recorded about a week earlier at a rehabilitation facility in Houston, shows even more progress than the public saw in Sawyer’s interview with Giffords and Kelly. In the minute-long message, Giffords spoke more clearly and in fuller sentences than she did just weeks before when she recorded the “20/20” interview.
“I’m getting stronger. I’m getting better. It’s been a hard year for all of us. Thinking about that day makes me sad. Six people died. Six innocent people. So many people hurt. There is lot to say,” she said. “I will speak better. I want to get back to work. Representing Arizona is my honor. My staff is there to help you. They keep me informed on your behalf. I miss you. I miss home. I’ll see you real soon. Thank you.”
Kurt Davis, a Republican lobbyist in Phoenix, said Giffords is functioning at an “extraordinary level” and said the prospect of her being well enough to run for reelection is very good. Even if she speaks in multiple complete sentences by the time she starts her campaign – and he wasn’t sure that she won’t – Davis didn’t think it would be a hindrance, as long as voters see that she still understands.
“I believe voters, if she chooses to run, they won’t even have an expectation. As long as they know that she is fully capable of making the decisions that she has to make by voting yes and no on legislation, which clearly she has that ability, I’m not sure the voters would demand that she be able to, quote-unquote, string sentences together,” Davis said.
Since the shooting, Giffords has returned to Congress only once, for a historic vote on Aug. 1 to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
Democrats were hesitant to discuss the possibility that Giffords wouldn’t run again, especially when it came to talk of which Democrats would run instead.
Sen. Paula Aboud, Farley and Heinz are all considered likely to jump into the race if Giffords doesn’t seek reelection, though none would say whether they were considering it.
And while Republicans Frank Antenori, a Tucson senator, and broadcaster and businessman Dave Sitton have already filed exploratory committees for the seat – Sitton said his decision will largely hinge on what Giffords decides to do – Democrats said it would be inappropriate for them to do the same kind of planning.
“To me, this is her seat. Gabby isn’t just our congresswoman. She’s our family. Politics really isn’t worth stabbing your family in the back,” Farley said.
Aboud, D-Tucson, said Democrats already have their candidate in Giffords. If Giffords decides to not run, she said, that’s the time to have that discussion.
“This seat is Gabby’s seat,” Aboud said. “I’m not making a judgment about (the Republicans’) decision. But it’s not appropriate for us to even talk about that.”
Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rodgers said he’s operating on the assumption that Giffords is running.
“I think she’s getting very close to being able to do her job in Congress right now,” he said. “I fully expect next spring to see her out on the campaign trail.”
But Aboud said the progress she saw in Giffords’ interview was about more than the congresswoman’s political future. It was about Giffords’ friends, loved ones and supporters being able to see her and see how far she’s come.
“We were desperate to see Gabby,” Aboud said. “You have no idea how we down here feel about it.”