Rep. Gabrielle Giffords rides motorcycles and horses.
She runs and rollerblades.
She spent a semester in Spain as a teenager and later traveled through rural Mexico alone as a Fulbright scholar.
So while her friends and colleagues are realistic about the difficulty of recovering from traumatic brain injury, they believe her physical fitness and mental toughness will help her pull through.
“This is a person who has a relentless work ethic,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. “She lives, sleeps and breathes getting the job done. That applies to her job in Congress, in the campaign and now to her job of getting better.”
People need to recognize that Giffords has sustained a massive injury and has an arduous journey ahead of her, Wasserman Schultz said. But “if there is anyone I know who can come back from an incident like this, it’s Gabby.”
In the week since Giffords was gravely wounded in an attempted assassination, the entire community has rejoiced at every hint of improvement — squeezing the hand of husband Mark Kelly, opening her eyes, dangling her legs over the bed in the intensive-care unit, breathing on her own.
Supporters have become accustomed to a “miracle every 48 hours,” said Michael McNulty, Giffords’ perennial campaign chairman.
“The rhetorical problem is that the doctors always say: ‘Given what she’s been through, she’s doing wonderfully.’ That’s kind of like saying ‘They’re going to China, and given that they have to walk, they’re doing great.’
“But I’ll say this — to the extent that prayer and good wishes can help people, she’ll be rollerblading by the first of March.”
Giffords’ friend and staffer Pam Simon, who is recovering from two gunshot wounds, said shortly after her release from the hospital that many elements of Giffords’ life story suggest she will battle back from whatever damage a bullet caused when it traversed the left hemisphere of her brain.
Simon mentioned Giffords’ tireless commitment to representing her congressional district that includes nearly weekly “red-eye” flights to keep in touch with her constituents.
She cited her adventurousness.
“She’s just a plucky young woman,” Simon said.
When Giffords is in Tucson, she rollerblades regularly on the asphalt track around Reid Park, or runs or goes on long bicycle rides. Her friend Linda McNulty said she often meets her walking the steep road up Tumamoc Hill.
Giffords is very fit, said friend Tom Zoellner, but her discipline and mental toughness may be even more remarkable.
She demonstrates that toughness every two years when she has to ask voters for her job, Zoellner said, particularly in the most recent election when the level of rhetoric reached fever pitch.
Family business calls
Giffords was born into a prominent Tucson family, the potential heir to a Tucson business, El Campo Tire, founded in 1949 by her grandfather, Gif Giffords. He was a fixture in Tucson’s business scene and so were the company’s “buck-stretcher” TV commercials.
Gabrielle Giffords started her career, reluctantly, in the family business in 1996 — the year she earned a master’s degree from Cornell University.
She had been on the track to success since her graduation from University High School in Tucson in 1988.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Scripps College, a private woman’s college in Claremont, Calif., where she received several scholastic honors and awards, including a Fulbright scholarship to study Mennonite missions in Mexico.
After receiving her master’s in regional planning from Cornell, she had taken a job in New York City with the accounting firm Price Waterhouse.
“It seemed like the beginning of a grand and glittering adventure in the big city: posh apartments, pointy-toed shoes and maybe even my first martini,” she said in a 2009 commencement address at Scripps.
Then her father Spencer Giffords, whose longtime partner and business manager had retired, asked her to return home to run the family business.
Within months, Giffords, then 27, had taken the reins as president and CEO of the firm, which had 11 outlets, 100 employees and
$11 million in annual sales.
Four years later, she oversaw the sale of the company to Goodyear Tire and made her first run for office in 2000, winning a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives.
A move to politics was no shock to those who knew Giffords well. Growing up, she had a reputation for being chatty and social. Her friends even predicted in a “Believe It or Not” section of her high school yearbook that she would be a “TV spokesperson.”
Those traits have served her well in the public arena.
Giffords is known for her accessibility. She almost always takes questions at public events. Her handlers know to schedule in “schmooze time” so she can meet people one-on-one.
In 2002, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona Senate.
“People are so excited and energized by a young person who has new ideas and energy and is not stuck in a pattern of thinking because they haven’t been there long,” Giffords told the Star a few years later. “When a new person comes in, it’s like a child that declares the emperor has no clothes.”
Giffords was re-elected to the Senate in 2004.
She was given a 100 percent rating by the Sierra Club for her votes on environmental legislation, and in true moderate fashion, Giffords crafted her arguments in economic form.
“For me, there’s a very strong link between having sound environmental policies and a sound economy,” she told the Star. “Quality of life issues, such as clean air, clean water and the availability of parks and open space, can be critical factors for companies contemplating moving to Arizona.”
She also began her career-long interest and support for science, sponsoring a bill that limited outside lighting to cut down on light pollution, again crafting it as an economic strategy on behalf of Arizona’s $100 million astronomy industry.
By 2005, she had earned a reputation for bipartisanship, hard work and accomplishment — not to mention cheerfulness.
In a session-ending editorial that year, the Star awarded her the title of “cheeriest legislator,” saying “cheery is just the opening: Giffords wins praise from people on both sides of the aisle for her intelligence, her diligence at research and the way she treats ‘state senator’ like a real job instead of a title.”
When Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe announced his plans to retire in 2005, Giffords was ready. She was among 11 candidates who lined up to claim the job.
Running as a moderate
The Republicans chose conservative Randy Graf, a former Arizona representative whose platform embraced one major theme: illegal immigration and its effects on Arizona’s border counties. The sprawling 9,000-square-mile 8th Congressional District runs for 114 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a sometimes nasty primary against five other Democrats, Giffords fended off charges that she was a Republican in Democratic clothing.
In the general election, she staked out middle ground on the immigration debate, telling a voter in Bisbee:
“We need enforcement-plus. We need money for high-tech solutions, not low-tech, Vietnam-era solutions. We need to get tough on employers, and we need to make sure we have a guest-worker program so people can come in and work — legally, safely — and go home.”
Ads run on behalf of Graf by the Minuteman organization said, “Giffords is a liberal extremist who supports Spanish ballots, amnesty and even citizenship for illegals.”
The moderate positions worked for Giffords against Graf in 2006 and again in 2008 against more moderate Tim Bee.
In her first two terms in Congress, Giffords championed solar energy, scientific research and the space program.
“I love the job,” Giffords said in 2008. “It’s hard; it’s demanding in ways that you’d never know.”
In November of 2007 she married Kelly, a Navy captain and space shuttle astronaut.
Giffords and Kelly met in China while part of an exchange program with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in 2003. She was an Arizona legislator; he lived in Houston.
For their first date, the pair went on a warden-guided tour of the maximum-security Arizona State Prison in Florence.
They shared their first kiss at Club Congress, where they went to see a band.
The 2010 election was more contentious than earlier ones.
Republicans nominated Jesse Kelly, a tea party favorite who plugged into the anti-incumbent mood of the country.
Giffords was slammed by Kelly for her support of the president’s health-care legislation and the economic stimulus bills.
Town hall meetings on health care were contentious and at times rowdy. Giffords was “thunderously booed” the first time she told a group that the United States, “the greatest nation on Earth” was one of the few developed nations that did not guarantee health care for all its citizens, said C.J. Karamargin, Giffords’ communications director.
She did not drop the line from subsequent meetings, he said.
Giffords won re-election, just barely, her usual 10-point margin pared to a 1.4 percent victory over Kelly.
“I’m not elated to be in the minority,” she said as Republicans took control of the House this month, “but my job isn’t to be in the majority. It’s to do the work, and I’m looking forward to doing that starting next week.”
Giffords continued to meet the public and, when re-elected, resumed her “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and-greet sessions.
She drove herself to the first such meeting of the year at the Oracle and Ina Safeway on Saturday morning, Jan. 8.
She has been in the intensive-care unit at University Medical Center ever since, Kelly at her side.
Road to recovery
Wasserman Schultz was one of three congresswomen present when Giffords opened her unbandaged right eye on Wednesday.
“As she was struggling to get her eyes open, you could see all the determination in her face — willing her eyes open. It’s just really classic Gabby Giffords, this battling back,” Wasserman Schultz said Monday.
In an interview with Diane Sawyer, which will air at 9 tonight on ABC’s “20/20,” Kelly said his wife — even in ICU, even with a traumatic brain injury — reached out to give him a neck massage.
“I’m like, ‘Gabby, you’re in the ICU. ... You don’t need to be doin’ this,’ ” he said. “But it’s so typical of her that no matter how bad the situation might be for her, you know, she’s lookin’ out for other people.”
Kelly said Giffords’ recovery will not be quick or easy, but he remains optimistic that it will come.
“We know that the recovery from these kind of injuries isn’t measured in days and weeks,” he said. “It’s more like weeks and months.
“And so she’s got a long, tough road ahead of her. But, you know, she’s a really, really tough woman.”
Reporter Veronica Cruz contributed to this story. Contact Tom Beal at email@example.com or 573-4158.