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Goodbye For Now

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords steps down to focus on her recovery

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Loud cheers greeted a smiling Gabrielle Giffords as she arrived at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona on Monday, Jan. 23, to make her final public appearance as a representative of her Congressional District 8.

With aides Ron Barber and Pia Carusone by her side, Giffords slowly walked across the warehouse floor and hugged Food Bank CEO Bill Carnegie.

Her face lit up in delight as Carnegie showed her the new Gabrielle Giffords Family Assistance Center, a one-stop shop where people who are down on their luck can discover what help is out there for them.

The new office, built with roughly $160,000 of the $325,000 donated to the Food Bank in Giffords' name following the shootings on Jan. 8, 2011, is a fitting tribute.

"She has a long history of helping us, even before she became a member of Congress," says Carnegie. "After she became a member of Congress, she was always interested in what was going on with the people here in Southern Arizona, and how we could make things better for them."

It's that spirit that many people in Congressional District 8 are going to miss after Giffords steps down this week.

"I was dismayed by the news that she had decided to resign from Congress, but I understand that her focus needs to be on her therapy and getting better," Carnegie says. "But I don't believe we've seen the last of Gabrielle Giffords in our political arena in Southern Arizona."

Giffords, 41, delivered the hard news that she was resigning from Congress just before noon on Sunday, Jan. 22, via a YouTube video.

"I don't remember much from that horrible day, but I will never forget the trust you placed in me to be your voice," she said, speaking slowly but clearly. "Thank you for your prayers and for giving me time to recover. I have more work to do on my recovery, so to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week."

The resignation marks the end of a chapter in a remarkable political life.

By now, the story has been told many times: A third-generation Arizona girl who loves motorcycles and horses and rock 'n' roll. A University High graduate who became a Fulbright scholar. A brief career in New York City before taking over the family tire business back here in Tucson. The top vote-getter in a tough race for the Arizona House of Representatives in 2000. Elected to the state Senate when she was just 32 years old. Capturing an open congressional seat in 2006 against a hard-right conservative, Randy Graf. Her marriage to astronaut Mark Kelly in 2007. Another big congressional win in 2008 against a more-moderate Republican, former state Senate President Tim Bee. A narrow win against another hard-right conservative, Jesse Kelly, in 2010, the year of the Tea Party.

And then, just days into her third term, the gunfire at a Congress on Your Corner event at a Safeway supermarket that would leave six dead and 13 wounded.

Giffords miraculously survived being shot through the left side of her head. She's spent the last year recovering as her brain knit itself back together. She still attends therapy nearly every day at a Houston hospital, fighting to relearn how to speak in sentences.

It's that dedication to rehabilitation that led to the resignation, according to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a close friend of Giffords.

Wasserman Schultz told CNN that during Giffords' recent trip to Tucson to commemorate the first anniversary of the shootings, Giffords realized "how challenging it would be" to continue serving in Congress while keeping up with her daily regimen.

Giffords leaves behind a legacy of being a fierce advocate for the people of Southern Arizona and the causes she believed in. She worked to help the solar-energy industry. She pushed for funding for the UA, particularly in the sciences. She fought for veterans. She joined the Blue Dog Democrats and argued for reducing the federal deficit. She voted in favor of the Democrats' sweeping health-care reform in 2010. She tried to find help for ranchers and others on the border bearing the brunt of troubles associated with illegal immigration.

She also built an office in Tucson that delivered top-notch constituent service, headed up by District Director Ron Barber.

Barber, who was shot twice on Jan. 8, says that he remembers talking to Giffords on a long drive about why they were put on the planet.

"She sort of summed it up by saying, 'I think we're here to care for each other,'" says Barber, who will remain on the job with the rest of the staff, under the command of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, until a new member of Congress is elected sometime in June.

Pima County Democratic Party chairman Jeff Rogers calls Giffords' decision to resign "an extraordinary loss for Southern Arizona."

Giffords was on a trajectory toward much bigger things, according to Rogers.

"Before the shooting, my only question was: Is she running for Senate, or is she running for governor?" Rogers says. "She really was one of those unique congresspersons who had a lot of crossover appeal and could work across the aisle with a lot of different Republicans, and there really aren't that many in Congress like that."

One of Giffords' secret weapons was her ability to charm many of her political opponents. While she didn't win over all of them, she did her best to try.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake—whom she might have faced in a run for the U.S. Senate this year—became a friend and was one of the first elected officials at University Medical Center on Jan. 8.

"When I heard, I had to come," Flake said that afternoon as he waited to hear if Giffords would survive. "She's a good friend and a great person."

Some of her supporters were heartbroken by the news of her resignation.

Roger Salzgeber, a 62-year-old campaign volunteer who helped take down the shooter on Jan. 8, says that part of him knew that Giffords would probably have to step down at some point, but he's still dismayed that she will no longer be a voice for Southern Arizona.

Salzgeber was out of town over the weekend and missed his chance to meet with Giffords when she got together on Monday, Jan. 23, with people who had been at her Congress on Your Corner event. He wonders if he would have been able to make it through the meeting without breaking down into tears.

"There's nothing I would like more than to just give her a huge hug and tell her that I care about her and thank her for the fact that I'm on (Pima County Board of Supervisors candidate) Nancy Young Wright's steering committee; I'm working to help (state Rep.) Steve Farley become my next state senator; and I'm more involved in politics than I ever was," Salzgeber says.

Like the bumper sticker says: Gabrielle Giffords continues to inspire.

While her halting speech in her resignation video shows that she still has a long way to go to fully recover her voice, Giffords delivered a message of hope to her supporters in her video on Sunday.

"I'm getting better," Giffords said. "Every day, my spirit is high. I will return, and we will work together for Arizona and this great country. Thank you very much."

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