Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

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In her weekly newsletter sent early this morning, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords told supporters: “The most effective way for me to do my job is for me to keep in touch with you.” Doing so may have cost her her life. The Arizona Democrat was shot in the head at her  “Congress on Your Corner” event at a Safeway supermarket in northwest Tucson when a gunman opened fire on the crowd with a semi-automatic weapon just as the event was winding down a few minutes past noon. The alleged gunman, whom the AP identifies as Jared Laughner, is now in police custody. At least one of Giffords’ aides is amongst the five dead and two others are injured amongst the nearly dozen wounded in the shooting, according to reports. Giffords is in surgery, fighting for her life. Her doctor said in a press conference he’s “about as optimistic as I can get in this situation.” The single bullet passed “through and through” her head, he said.

The attack – no matter what the motivation – is bound is revive the debate over congressional safety from last summer’s controversial health care town hall meetings. In fact, one of Giffords’ offices was vandalized during that summer of discontent. Members routinely hold several of these kinds of events a day whilst at home in their districts. Unless they are leaders, they rarely receive police protection – indeed, police aren’t generally informed of the events. “I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and members of her staff,” said Speaker John Boehner in a statement. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society. Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, all who were injured, and their families. This is a sad day for our country.”

Echoed President Obama: “This morning, in an unspeakable tragedy, a number of Americans were shot in Tucson, Arizona, at a constituent meeting with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords…We do not yet have all the answers. What we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society.”

Giffords was one of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s “majority makers” – those swing seats that helped Dems to the majority in 2006 – who kept her seat in 2010. Up against a Tea Party candidate, Republican businessman Jesse Kelly, Giffords’ was one of the last races to be called. She won by less than 1% of the vote in a district that went 52% to 46% in 2008 for John McCain. A moderate, she was openly unhappy with Pelosi’s leadership and last week cast her vote for speaker by defiantly shouting out Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s name instead of Pelosi’s. “Congresswoman Giffords is a brilliant and courageous Member of Congress, bringing to Washington the views of a new generation of national leaders,” Pelosi said in a statement. “It is especially tragic that she was attacked as she was meeting with her constituents whom she serves with such dedication and distinction.”

Giffords grew up in the Tuscon area, a third generation Arizonan. After graduating from Scripps College in California, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Mexico. She then received a masters from Cornell University in regional planning. After a brief stint in New York, she returned to Tuscon to run the family’s tire business. Giffords entered politics at the age of 30, winning a seat in the State Legislature in 2000 and two years later she became the youngest woman ever elected to the State Senate.

Giffords grabbed a rare opportunity in 2005 when 22-year House veteran Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican serving in Congress, announced his retirement. Kolbe’s Tucson district has always been center-right leaning – wary of extreme ideas on either side. Indeed, centrist Giffords has benefitted from Kolbe’s help. In the 2006 race, Kolbe refused to endorse the GOP nominee, then-State Rep. Randy Graf, who was supported by the Minutemen Project, a group that patrols the borders for undocumented immigrants. Giffords won 54% to 42%, even carrying the Minutemen stronghold in Cochise County. In 2008, Kolbe withdrew his endorsement of Giffords’ opponent, State Senate President Tim Bee, a moderate, after Bee cast the deciding vote barring same sex marriage in Arizona. And Kolbe refused to endorse Kelly, Giffords’ 2010 opponent, who was also was endorsed by the Minutemen.

Giffords has followed in Kolbe’s moderate footsteps in Congress. She became a member of the fiscal conservative Blue Dog Coalition. She openly opposed earmarks, though said she’s said she’ll continue to seek them as long as the practice continues. A member of the Armed Services Committee – her district encompasses two military bases — Giffords has made several trips to Iraq. She at first opposed the surge, though ultimately voted to fund it. She’s a defender of gun rights, joining an amicus brief to the Supreme Court to overturn the Washington DC gun ban.

At the same time, she’s more socially liberal. She is pro-choice – enjoying the support of Emily’s List – and a proponent of embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage. She’s a champion of solar energy – she has been working to make Tuscon one of the country’s big solar-hubs. She even changed her vote on the $700 billion bank bailout when a solar energy credit was included. And she voted for the 2009 climate change bill because of the renewable energy provisions in it.

But the overarching issue that has defined her career has been immigration. Giffords opposed the tough new Arizona laws on undocumented workers and supports finding a path to citizenship for the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. At the same time she worked hard with the Administration to beef up border security and secure $600 million in funding to add more technology and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. She also hailed the deployment of the National Guard to the border. “Arizonans have waited a long time for the deployment of the National Guard in our state,” she said August 31, 2010. “Their arrival represents a renewed national commitment to protecting our border communities from drug cartels and smugglers.”

A powerful fundraiser, Giffords out-raised all three of her opponents for a career total of nearly $10 million. She’s sassy in her efforts, last year sending out photos of herself with her motorcycle. In 2007 she franked more mail than any other member and made 340 appearances in her district – all chronicled by National Public Radio, which followed her around for the year. She is also the only member of Congress married to an active member in the U.S. military. She wed her husband, Discovery astronaut Mark Kelly — who is scheduled to captain a shuttle mission in 10-weeks — in November 2007. She’s often mentioned as a rising star in the ranks of Democratic women politicians. Her name has been floated for everything from Senator to Governor – and higher. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the first or second female president of the United States,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a Giffords mentor, told The New York Times in 2007.

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