Throughout her 10-year rise from citizen to congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords took a pragmatic approach that sometimes masked the passion of her call to service.
"I consider myself a moderate," she said in a characteristic interview with the Arizona Daily Star in 2008. "I'm a pragmatic, independent-thinking individual who tries to look at all sides of an issue."
That approach is a lot tougher than adopting an ideology that doesn't involve researching all sides of an issue and listening to what everyone has to say, said Giffords staffer Mark Kimble.
Giffords cheerfully embraces the demands of her job, Kimble said. He remembers asking her once about the long separations from her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, that both their jobs demanded. "She said that both she and Mark were very dedicated to their jobs and to working for the country. This sounds almost schmaltzy, but she said it's very important to us that we feel we're doing important things and making the country a better place to live."
Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington said that, contrary to common belief, politics is an arena where "what most people care about is public service and representing the people you were elected to represent."
That means you start by "truly listening to the people you represent," he said. "Nobody does that better than Gabby."
The second part of the equation, he said, is making sure government works. "A government can be efficient and effective, or not," he said. "You can be absolutely passionate about making sure that what government does, it does well, and Gabby was very focused on that."
Those two elements create effective representation, Smith said, and there is "nothing wishy-washy about it."
"What Gabby understands is that maybe the day will come when somebody creates the perfect ideology to anticipate all human needs and give you a template for making the right decisions, but nobody has done that yet. I tend to think it's because an essential element of the human condition is constant change and adjustment. Being wedded to an ideology does not make you necessarily more principled than people who work to get things done."
Smith said he met Giffords during her first congressional run in 2004 when he headed a centrist Democratic congressional group known as New Democrats.
They have since served together on two House committees, including Armed Services, traveling to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East together.
Smith was interviewed by phone while waiting for a flight to Tucson Wednesday. "My message is very simple," he said. "Gabby is an amazing person, and everybody needs to know that."
State Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, said Giffords has "the most passion for public service I've ever seen."
It paid off at election time, he said, including in 2010, which Heinz called "the most challenging time for any incumbent Democrat." Giffords managed to win narrowly in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 19,000 voters. "That's amazing," Heinz said, "but I think it's because she is where the people are. She appeals to everyone."
State Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said he's heard all the criticism - that Giffords is "too Republican" to represent Democrats or "too liberal" to be elected to an Arizona congressional district. "She's always one person all the time. What an amazing revelation," he said.
"That's absolutely what we need," Farley said. "You have to think that's what the Founders had in mind. There will always be disagreement on policy, but if you are willing to sit down and come to a solution, then you can move the argument forward and maybe come to an agreement."
"Public service, in all forms, is courageous," Lori Bettison-Varga, president of Scripps College, wrote in a commentary in the Journal of Higher Education this week. Giffords earned her bachelor's degree at Scripps.
"Respectful disagreement - the ability to hear another's viewpoint despite your own, without hate and distortion - has been lost in the current political climate. Gabrielle Giffords believes in her calling to enact change through the political process in an open, honest and authentic manner, without harsh criticism or inflammatory rhetoric," Bettison-Varga said.
Kimble noted that Giffords was once again pursuing her calling on Saturday, listening to those she represents, and doing so cheerfully.
He arrived early, feeling a bit sorry for himself about having to work another weekend morning.
His boss drove into the parking lot. "She bounced out of the car and said to me, 'Good morning, Mr. Kimble,' and gave me a big hug."
Contact reporter Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.