WASHINGTON (JTA) — The event was typical Gabrielle Giffords: no barriers, all comers — Democrats, Republicans and independents welcome to talk about what was on their minds and in their hearts.
While she was deep in a conversation with an older couple about health care — the issue for which she was willing to risk her career — a gunman strode up to the Arizona congresswoman and shot her point blank in the head.
The critical wounding Jan. 8 of Giffords and the slaughter of six people standing near her — including a federal judge, her chief of community outreach and a 9-year-old girl interested in politics — brought to a screeching halt the easy, open ambience that typified Giffords’ politics, friends and associates said.
“She’s a warm person,” Stuart Mellan, the president of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, said as he walked away from a prayer service Saturday night at Temple Emanuel in Tucson, one of the southeastern Arizona cities that Giffords represents in Congress. “Everyone called her Gabby, and she would give a hug and remember your name.”
Giffords was the president of the tire company founded by her grandfather when she was propelled into state politics in part because of her concerns about the availability of health care. She switched her registration from Republican to Democrat and in 2001, at 30, she was elected to the Arizona Legislature.
She gained prominence quickly in that body and in 2006, at 36, she became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress from her state.
At the same time, her Judaism was becoming more central to her identity. The turning point came in 2001 following a tour of Israel with the American Jewish Committee, she told The Arizona Star in 2007.
"It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism," she said. "Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from."
Her wedding to Cmdr. Mark Kelly, an astronaut, was written up in The New York Times. The item noted that a mariachi band played Jewish music and there were two canopies — a chupah and one of swords held up by Kelly’s Navy buddies.
“That was Gabby,” Jonathan Rothschild, a longtime friend who served on her campaign’s executive committee, recalled to JTA. “The real irony of this thing is her Judaism is central to her, but she is the kind of person who reaches out to everybody.”
Giffords’ father is Jewish and her mother is a Christian Scientist, and she was raised in both faiths. Her grandfather, Akiba Hornstein, changed his name to Giffords after moving from New York to Arizona, in part because he did not want his Jewishness to be an issue in unfamiliar territory.
The women on her father’s side of the family seemed to guide her toward identifying with Judaism.
“In my family, if you want to get something done you take it to the Jewish women relatives,” she told JTA in 2006. “Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”
Giffords, who last week took the oath of office for her third term in Congress, has pushed Jewish and pro-Israel issues to the forefront at the state and federal levels. She initiated an Arizona law facilitating Holocaust-era insurance claims for survivors, and in Congress she led an effort to keep Iran from obtaining parts for combat aircraft.
She didn’t stint in seeking Jewish and pro-Israel funding. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), the premier pro-Israel lawmaker in Congress, fundraised for her, as did Steve Rabinowitz, the Washington public relations maven whose shop represents a slate of Jewish groups.
“She was so heimishe, so down to earth,” Rabinowitz, himself from Tucson, recalled of his fundraiser last spring.
Almost as soon as she was elected to the state Legislature, Giffords was enmeshed in Arizona’s signature issue — rights for undocumented immigrants — according to Josh Protas, who directed the Tucson-area Jewish Community Relations Council for years before moving to Washington in 2009 to direct the D.C. office of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Protas recalled meeting with Giffords as part of the area faith coalition promoting immigrant rights.
“We met with her around immigration issues and she was sensitive to the faith community’s concerns,” he said.
Her approach to the issue was typical for the moderate Democrat, Protas said: She attempted to synthesize what she regarded as the valid viewpoints of both sides on the divisive issue.
“Understanding the complexities of the immigration situation was something important to her,” he said. It came from “a sense of the Jewish value around how we treat the stranger, a history of the Jewish community — but she had recognition of the strong need for security.”
It was a posture that led Giffords to hit both the state and federal governments last year: She blasted the Obama administration for not doing enough to secure the border, but also slammed as repressive a new Arizona law that allowed police to arrest undocumented immigrants during routine stops.
“She was very moderate in her views and willing to meet with folks on all sides,” Protas said. “She took a lot of heat particularly the last couple of years from both the far right and the far left.”
In the end, her greatest vulnerability might have been her openness.
The day Jim Kolbe said he was not seeking re-election to Congress, Giffords told Rothschild that she would run for the seat. Rothschild had one bit of advice for her: Come back every weekend to meet constituents. Not hanging out with the locals had led to the defeat of Kolbe’s Democratic predecessor.
He didn’t need to convince her; she was back virtually every weekend.
And her open, engaging approach appeared to pay off.
Despite representing a swing district, she survived the Republican wave in November. And just three days before the shooting she was back in Washington — with one hand up and one hand on the Jewish Bible, grinning at her swearing-in at the Capitol.
On Saturday she was back in Tucson, at a parking lot smiling at all comers.