Giffords Became Democrat Who Defies Political Labels

Representative Gabrielle Giffords
U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Source: Giffords for Congress via Bloomberg

Arizona U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was one of 19 Democrats to deny their party’s leader, Nancy Pelosi, support as the U.S. House of Representatives chose a new speaker Jan. 5.

Giffords, in critical condition after being shot in the head Jan. 8 while meeting with constituents in Tucson, cast her vote for Georgia Representative John Lewis as the new Republican-controlled House picked John Boehner of Ohio to be the new speaker. She was one of two Democrats to vote for Lewis, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The protest vote against Pelosi, who led House Democrats as they lost a majority in last November’s election, was largely conducted by members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats that includes Giffords among its members. She voted against legislation in 2008 to bail out auto companies such as General Motors Co.

Yet, like Pelosi, one-time Republican Giffords, 40, is a supporter of abortion rights, stem-cell research and other social issues favored by more liberal Democrats. She voted last month to overturn the Defense Department’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military. She voted for the health-care legislation last year that was Pelosi’s crowning legislative achievement as speaker.

Moment of Silence

President Barack Obama led the nation in observing a moment of silence today to honor victims of the mass shooting. Lawmakers, staff and visitors observed the moment on the steps of the Capitol’s east front. Later, shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner appeared in federal court in Phoenix to face charges stemming from the rampage.

Representing a congressional district in southeast Arizona that includes a large stretch of the U.S. border with Mexico, Giffords has advocated for tougher U.S. border security and has pushed legislation to increase the number of Border Patrol agents. In 2007, she conditioned her support for immigration legislation on beefed-up border surveillance and giving employers more “identification tools” to help them avoid hiring undocumented workers.

Still, Giffords voted for a measure last year that would have allowed some children of illegal immigrants to obtain legal status. She also criticized Arizona’s 2010 law that requires local police to determine the immigration status of people they stop for routine traffic checks.

In a statement after its passage, Giffords called it “an extreme immigration law” that “does nothing to secure our border.” Giffords said the legislature enacted the law “in response to the federal government’s failure to act” to stem illegal border crossings and that it should be a “wake-up call to Washington politicians who have refused to take seriously their responsibility to address the crisis on our border.”

Health-Care Legislation

Giffords supported the passage of legislation last year that redesigned the U.S. health-care system to extend insurance to more than 32 million people. In a statement yesterday, leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which supports abortion rights, called Giffords a “fearless champion of health care for all Americans.”

Giffords was one of 20 Democrats who supported the health-care legislation who were targeted for defeat by Sarah Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC. A posting on Palin’s Facebook page included a U.S. map with the cross-hair symbols for a rifle scope dotting the locations of each lawmaker’s home state.

“This is the first salvo in the fight to elect people” to “bring common sense to Washington,” the posting said. On Jan. 8, Palin offered “sincere condolences” to “the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona” in a posting on the SarahPAC Web page.

Sarah Palin

Of the 20 lawmakers singled out for defeat by Palin, only Giffords and West Virginia’s Nick Rahall returned to Congress this year. The others were defeated or didn’t seek re-election.

Giffords is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, which was formed after Democrats lost their majority in the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. The group organized around the idea that the party had moved too far to the left. The moniker reflects the feeling of some that their views had been “choked blue” by the Democrats’ liberal wing.

A native of Tucson, Giffords graduated in 1993 from Scripps College in California and obtained a master’s degree in regional planning from New York’s Cornell University in 1997. After working in New York for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, she returned to her hometown to run her family’s tire business. In 2007, she married astronaut Mark Kelly, 46.

Her political career began in 2000 with her election as an Arizona state representative. Two years later, she was elected to the Arizona state Senate and in 2006 ran for Congress when the incumbent, Republican Jim Kolbe, announced his retirement.

Tea Party Challenge

Elected to the House that year, Giffords quickly jumped into the debate on immigration law and border security. A drive to overhaul U.S. immigration laws failed to produce sweeping legislation and the debate continues.

In 2010, Giffords was challenged for re-election by Republican Jesse Kelly, who was backed by the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement. She won by about 4,000 votes with support from almost 49 percent of the electorate.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich told the Arizona Republic newspaper in 2007 that Giffords had a bright political future. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the first or second female president of the United States,” Reich said.

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