You want to know why the Jan. 8 memorial should be built?
Look no further than some seemingly unconnected events of the last couple of months.
The bill that would have funded construction of the memorial flew through the state House, then died without a hearing in the Senate, thanks in part to gun politics.
Then last week, the FBI arrested a Tucson man it said threatened to kill U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, who won the seat in Congress that Gabrielle Giffords occupied until she was disabled by the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting.
We need a place like this, that celebrates civic participation in government while memorializing those who were killed and wounded six years ago.
State Rep. Todd Clodfelter, a Tucson Republican, sponsored the bill, which would have given the project $500,000 in state money for five years, and got it rolling admirably. With auto dealer Jim Click supporting him, Clodfelter won a unanimous vote in favor of the bill in the House Appropriations committee on Feb. 22 and a 49-11 vote in favor by the whole House the next day.
Then Feb. 28 it hit the Senate with a thud.
What was most important in killing the bill is unclear, but several factors are well recognized, and one has not been discussed much publicly but seems crucial. In the years since the shooting, Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, have become advocates for stricter gun laws and founded a national organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to work on that agenda.
On March 16, they took their campaign to Phoenix and launched the Arizona Coalition for Common Sense. They were not subtle about their intentions — to possibly launch an initiative campaign to end the gun-show loophole and to throw out of office legislators who won’t act on gun laws.
Noting their national group has an annual budget of about $15 million, Kelly said, “And we spend a lot of that money around election time of November of even years.”
For the Jan. 8 memorial bill, that was not good timing.
Sen. Gail Griffin, the Hereford Republican who has taken heat for not giving the bill a hearing, denies that Giffords’ gun-law stance was the reason for her own rejection of the bill. She said she heard from constituents who didn’t want state money going to the memorial. Also, some people pointed out that the Pima County bond issue that had included funding for the memorial, Prop. 427, lost by 66 to 34 percent in November 2015.
But you really can’t untangle some people’s feelings about the Jan. 8 memorial from the course that Kelly and Giffords have plotted in recent years.
“I don’t think their tone went over well with some of the conservatives,” Clodfelter acknowledged Tuesday. “Bad timing, I guess is what you’d say.”
Ron Barber, who was Giffords’ district director and succeeded her in office, told me an email sent to Senate leaders also turned them against the bill.
“A guy from Tucson sent an email to the leadership in the Senate making wild accusations about what this is really all about. He said it was about gun control, which it really was not. Unfortunately, the damage was done.”
Barber has made the memorial his top priority and is working hard to raise the money. I asked him whether Giffords and Kelly are involved.
“They haven’t been involved in fundraising for the memorial. They’ve obviously put this (Americans for Responsible Solutions) as Priority 1 in their lives. That’s separate from what we do. We want to keep it separate, entirely. I don’t want anyone to think this is about gun control. It’s not.”
Now, Clodfelter probably didn’t dig as deeply into his legislative bag of tricks as he could have. Some Republicans withheld support for the agreed-on state budget until they could get their priorities taken care of.
The so-called Freedom Schools at the UA and ASU, which research and promote free-market economics and politics, got $2 million because of a GOP holdout. Clodfelter probably could’ve played the same game, withholding his support till he got the measly $500,000 per year into the budget.
“I suppose I could have,” Clodfelter told me. “Being the new guy, I’m less informed on that” sort of aggressive tactic.
Sen. Steve Farley argued for the appropriation during the budget debate, but to no avail.
In the end that may be all right. The price of the designed memorial, which will be outside the west side of the Old Pima County Courthouse, is steep at $5 million. But it is not out of sight. Tucson’s Jan. 8 Memorial Foundation has already raised $1 million, and it has Click as one of its key supporters and potential fundraisers. It has also started a GoFundMe campaign online.
More important, it should be done, and the threats to McSally show why. A Tucson man, Steve Martan, is accused of leaving threatening messages for McSally that said, among other things, “Be careful when you come back to Tucson ’cause we hate you here, OK? Can’t wait to (expletive) pull the trigger (expletive).”
McSally needs to be back in Tucson, and she needs to be able to mix with her constituents, as Giffords was doing when a madman pulled the trigger in 2011.
The memorial remembers the people who were killed (four of the six were Republicans) and injured while engaging with their member of Congress. Events keep reminding us why that’s a good and precious thing.