GIFFORDS, Gabrielle

GIFFORDS, Gabrielle
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1970–

Biography

Gabby Giffords was a rising star for Democrats in the U.S. House before a would–be assassin prematurely ended her career and nearly took her life. An advocate for border security, alternative energy development, and veterans' benefits, Giffords was proud of her centrist record first in the Arizona legislature and then in Congress. "Always I fought for what I thought was right," she once said. "But never did I question the character of those with whom I disagreed. Never did I let pass an opportunity to join hands with someone just because he or she held different beliefs. In public service, I found a venue for my pursuit of a stronger America—by ensuring the safety and security of all Americans, by producing clean energy here at home instead of importing oil from abroad, and by honoring our brave men and women in uniform with the benefits they earned."1

A third–generation Arizonan, Gabrielle Dee "Gabby" Giffords was born on June 8, 1970, in Tucson, Arizona, the youngest child of Spencer and Gloria Giffords. Giffords has an older sister, Melissa, and an older half–brother, Alejandro. She graduated from University High School in Tucson in 1988. She then attended Scripps College, in Claremont, California, and graduated with a double major in Latin American studies and sociology in 1993. After studying for a year in Chihuahua, Mexico, on a J. William Fulbright Scholarship, Giffords earned a master's degree in urban planning from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1996. She then worked for six months at a New York City consultancy before returning to Tucson to run her family's tire business, which she did for almost four years. In running the business her grandfather founded in 1949, Giffords focused on customer service. "I never thought I'd like (the job) as much as I do," she said at the time. "I didn't know what to expect. My vision (for the company) is providing service I haven't seen provided before."2 Economic pressure forced Giffords to consolidate the tire business into a commercial property management firm in 2000, which she helped manage until 2007.3 In November 2007, Giffords married Mark Kelly, a Navy pilot and astronaut, who she met during a trip to China four years before. 4

Giffords, who first sought elected office in 2000, said she entered politics after frustrations at her tire business. She said job applicants lacked the skills to fill out forms properly, and she had difficulty finding help for an employee with a mental illness. "Why wring your hands when you can fix the tractor?" Giffords said.5 Giffords spent a single term in the Arizona state house and then won election to the state senate in 2002 with more than 74 percent of the vote—becoming the youngest woman ever elected to that chamber.6 She won re–election in 2004. As a member of the state senate, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in 2003 named Giffords one of the "100 New Democrats to Watch," and in 2005 the Aspen Institute made her part of its inaugural class of Aspen–Rodel fellows, a leadership program for elected officials under the age of 50.7

When Representative Jim Kolbe, an 11–term Republican Member of the U.S. House, announced his retirement in late 2005, Giffords resigned from the state senate to run for the seat, which represents parts of Tucson and the southeastern corner of Arizona. Calling Kolbe's retirement a "window of opportunity" for a "pro–business Democrat" to pick–up a seat in the House, Giffords was an early front–runner among Democrats.8 She faced five opponents in the Democratic Party primary, including a former local news anchor with wide name recognition. Immigration, education, health care, and ethics issues all played prominent roles in the campaign, despite little policy disagreement among the top primary contenders.9 Giffords easily won the primary with 54.3 percent of the vote, defeating her nearest opponent by more than 23 percentage points.10 In the general election, she faced Republican Randy Graf, a staunch immigration opponent who had challenged Kolbe in the 2004 Republican primary. Giffords defeated Graf with 54.3 percent of the vote during an election that saw Democrats return to the majority for the first time in a dozen years.11

Elected to the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Giffords served on the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Science and Technology committees—committees on which she would serve throughout her tenure in Congress. She was also named a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. National Public Radio profiled her first term, with segments detailing life as a freshman legislator and policy issues important to Giffords. "[M]y district, southern Arizona and other bordering states, are shouldering the burden of what is a national crisis. The federal government has decided not to respond year after year after year," she said during a segment on immigration.12 Giffords, who made immigration the subject of her first speech on the House Floor, supported comprehensive immigration reform, including high–tech radar and drone patrols as well as sanctions for those who employ undocumented workers.13 In addition to immigration concerns, Giffords won passage of legislation expanding research into solar energy.14

Giffords easily won re–election in 2008 with nearly 55 percent of the vote.15 During the 111th Congress (2009–2011), Giffords chaired the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the Science and Technology Committee. She largely supported President Barack Obama's policy priorities, voting for the Affordable Care Act, the repeal of Don't–Ask–Don't–Tell, a comprehensive immigration reform plan, and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In the 2010 general election, Giffords faced Jesse Kelly, who had the support of the Tea Party movement, and argued Giffords's support for Obama's agenda belied her stance as moderate. Giffords emerged with a 48.8–to–47.3 percent victory—the narrowest election of her career. "We won because Democrats, Republicans and Independents pulled together in our campaign to focus on the real solutions to the obstacles that we face," Giffords said after the victory.16

On January 8, 2011, three days after the start of the 112th Congress (2011–2013), Giffords met with constituents near a grocery store in Tucson. During the event, a gunman killed six constituents, including a federal judge and one of Giffords's aides, and wounded 13 others. Giffords was shot in the head at close range and barely survived. The shooting galvanized national attention.17 Giffords made an astonishing recovery despite the severity of her injuries.18 She saw her husband launch into space in May 2011, and she returned to the House to vote on a debt ceiling bill in August 2011. Giffords, however, was unable to focus on both her recovery and her congressional duties, and on January 25, 2012, she resigned from the House.

"The only way I ever served my district in Congress was by giving 100 percent," she said in her resignation letter. "This past year, that's what I have given to my recovery. Thank you for your patience. From my first steps and first words after being shot to my current physical and speech therapy, I have given all of myself to being able to walk back onto the House floor this year to represent Arizona's 8th Congressional District. However, today I know that now is not the time. I have more work to do on my recovery before I can again serve in elected office. . . . Everyday, I am working hard. I will recover and will return, and we will work together again, for Arizona and for all Americans."19

Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2012): H170.

2Vera Fedchenko, "27–Year–Old Charts Ariz. Firm's Course," 16 February 1998, Tire Business: 1.

3Dmitry Kiper, "Gabrielle Giffords," Current Biography, Vol. 73, No. 3 (March 2012): 22; Sheryl Gay Stolberg and William Yardley, "For Giffords, Tucson Roots Shaped Views," 14 January 2011, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/15/us/15profile.html (accessed 18 May 2012).

4Judith Anderson, "Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly," 2 December 2007, New York Times: section 9, pg. 19; Cathalena E. Burch, "Down–to–Earth, Yet Astronomical: Romanic Journey of Congresswoman and Astronaut Includes Cattle Roundup, Prison Visit, First Kiss at Club Congress, A Shuttle Liftoff, Election Victory," 11 November 2007, Arizona Daily Star.

5Carl Weiser, "Desire for change spurs political careers," 16 July 2004, Gannett News Service.

6Kiper, Current Biography: 22.

7"Star Watch," 16 September 2003, Richmond Times Dispatch: A12; The Aspen Institute, "Inaugural Class," http://www.aspeninstitute.org/leadership–programs/aspen–institute–rodel–fellowships–public–le–/rodel–fellows–inaugural–class (accessed 21 May 2012).

8Gregory L. Giroux, "Democrats See ‘Window of Opportunity' in Arizona with Kolbe Retirement," 2 December 2005, Congressional Quarterly Today; Arthur H. Rotstein, "Tucson Democrat Resigns to Seek Seat Kolbe is Vacating," 1 December 2005, Associated Press.

9Stephen Dinan, "Arizona Voters Driven by Border; GOP on Defense in 3 Key Contests," 6 September 2006, Washington Times: A01.

10Arizona Secretary of State, State of Arizona Official Canvass, http://www.azsos.gov/election/PreviousYears.htm.

11"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/election.html.

12"All Things Considered," National Public Radio, 22 May 2007.

13Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (12 January 2007): H492.

14Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 47.

15"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/election.html.

16Bob Christie, "Rep. Giffords Wins Re–Election in AZ 8th District," 6 November 2010, Associated Press.

17Kiper, Current Biography: 25.

18Denise Grady, "Doctors Detail Giffords's Progress," 12 March 2011, New York Times: A13.

19Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2012): H170–171.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Arizona
Special Collections

Tucson, AZ
Papers: ca. 1995-2012, 70 linear feet. This collection contains the political papers of Gabrielle Giffords that document her career as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 2007-2012 as well as the shooting at Giffords’ “Congress on your Corner” event on January 8, 2011. It is organized into 3 subgroups with the bulk of the collection found in the committee files as well as in materials related to the January 8th, 2011 Tucson, Arizona shooting. The collection also contains correspondence, legislative files, voting records, subject files, photographs and audio visual materials. This collection also contains a substantial amount of electronic records. The collection is currently closed but researchers can contact an archivist regarding access.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Giffords, Gabrielle., Mark Kelly, and Jeffrey Zaslow. Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope. New York: Scribner, 2011.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - Science and Technology
    • Space and Aeronautics - Chair
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