We are all shocked, saddened and angered over the attempted assassination of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which resulted in the deaths of at least a half-dozen people, including a Federal judge and a 9-year old girl. Prior to the shooting, few people outside of her Congressional District had ever heard of Representative Giffords.
I am one of the few who have written extensively about her. What follows is my essay on Gabrielle Giffords which appears in "The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Members of Congress" which, ironically, was published 72-hours before the shooting
Unbeknownst to all but the more fervent "Capitol Hill junkie," the official term for a caucus is "Congressional Membership Organization." In the 110th Congress there were more than 300 of them registered with the Committee on House Administration--almost twice the number of caucuses that existed at the end of President George W. Bush's first term in 2004. By the beginning of the 111th Congress in January 2009, the number had fallen back to a slightly more manageable 250. Less than a handful of these House caucus groups ever have face-to- face meetings. Almost all lack private office space or financing; only a select few have Web sites. In addition to the handful of caucuses that will from time to time get mentioned by name in the press--"Congressional Black Caucus," "Blue Dog Coalition," "Republican Study Committee," and "New Democratic Coalition" are examples--there are dozens upon dozens that anyone away from Capitol Hill has never heard of. Some have names that easily indicate their cause or area of concern, like "Biomedical Research Caucus," "Congressional Brain Injury Task Force," "Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus," or "Congressional Caucus on Qatari-American Economic Strategic Defense, Cultural and Educational Partnership," which has the honor of being the caucus with the longest name. (The Senate has only one recognized caucus--on International Narcotics Control. On the Senate side formal caucuses must be established by legislation.)
Then, there are caucuses whose names can give one the wrong impression. The "Congressional Bourbon Caucus" (chaired by John Yarmuth) and the "Congressional Gaming Caucus" (chaired by Shelley Berkley) do not consist of members who gather to drink and gamble. Rather, Yarmuth represents bourbon-producing Kentucky, and Berkley represents Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the United States; their caucuses are "gatherings" of colleagues who agree on the need to help support these industries. The Bourbon Caucus "plans to advocate for the bourbon industry by fighting proposals like a tax increase on liquor." Likewise, Berkley's Gaming Caucus "deals with a range of issues, pushing to reinvigorate the tourism industry and making sure regulations for Internet gambling are fair." Likewise, the "Congressional Songwriters Caucus" is not a group of politicians who compose songs. Rather, its three dozen members "focus on issues like intellectual property protection."
One of the House's largest congressional membership organizations is Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer's Congressional Bicycle Caucus (CBC). Consisting of nearly two hundred members from forty-three states and the District of Columbia, the CBC "aims to promote cycling by improving infrastructure and increasing awareness of cyclists." One of the newest--and smallest--of these interest groups is the Congressional Motorcycle Caucus, cofounded and co-chaired by Arizona Representative--and longtime motorcyclist--Gabrielle Giffords. It is but one of sixty-eight caucuses she joined in her first two years in the House. Among these sixty eight are three that at first blush have next to nothing in common: the Congressional Arts Caucus, the NASA House Action Team, and the House Green Building Caucus. However, a little research into the family, life, and interests of Gabrielle Giffords makes it abundantly clear why she joined these three groups: her mother, Gloria Fraser Giffords is a noted painter, art historian, author, and conservator; both her husband Mark E. Kelly and his twin brother Scott J., are NASA astronauts; Representative Giffords and her husband are so committed to living "green" that at their wedding ceremony, "the bride wore recycled Vera Wang. . . . Everything was biodegradable," including "the cups and plates (which) were made from sugar cane and cornstarch."
Gabrielle Gifford's paternal grandfather, Giff Giffords (born Akiba Hornstein) was the son of a Lithuanian rabbi. Akiba (1900--1985) was born and raised in New York. Somehow he acquired the nickname "Gifford" when he was in elementary school. While still living in New York, he married Ruth Paltrowitz, the daughter of Myer and Ida Paltrowitz. Myer ("Meyer Palterewitch") the son of Rabbi Simon and Sophia Paltrowitch, was born in Boston in July 1876. He enlisted for service at the beginning of the Spanish-American War. The longtime president of a plumbing supply concern, Myer was installed as "commander of the Hebrew Veterans of the War with Spain" eleven days before his death in January 1957. In addition to Ruth--the future Mrs. Giff Giffords--he and Ida had two sons and two daughters. One of their sons, Arnold ("Buster"), shortened the family name to "Paltrow." He married Dorothy S. Weigert. Their son, Bruce Paltrow (1943 -"2002) would grow up to become a nine-time Emmy-nominated producer, director, and writer (TV's St. Elsewhere), the husband of Emmy-winning actress Blythe Danner, and the father of Oscar-winning actress (Shakespeare in Love) Gwyneth Paltrow. (This means that although they have reportedly never met, Representative Giffords and Gwyneth Paltrow are first cousins once removed.)
Akiba, Ruth, and their son Spencer moved out to Arizona after World War II. Settling in the Tucson area, Akiba began to feel the sting of anti-Semitism; as a response, he started calling himself "Gifford" Hornstein. When that moniker "failed to give the desired effect"; he merely doubled his alias, thus becoming "Gifford Giffords." In 1949, Giff started El Campo Tire. The business began to prosper; in the 1950s, Giff, who did his own commercials, became a fixture on local television. Giff was a natural-born character. All Tusconians who watched TV in the 1950s and 1960s remember Giff for "the late night equivalent of infomercials," which featured his "escapades throughout the world." Each program would invariably end with an invitation to "visit El Campo Tire and purchase some retreads."
Giff and Ruth were committed Jews, and were instrumental in establishing a Hillel Foundation chapter at the University of Arizona. Spencer eventually took over El Campo from his father and greatly expanded the business; by the time of its sale to Goodyear in 2000, it was officially "El Campo Tire and Warehouses, Inc.," had more than a dozen locations, and was Tucson's exclusive Cooper tire dealer and a Firestone associate. Spencer Giffords became a presence in the local community, serving for many years on the Governing Board of the Tanque Verde School District.
Spencer Giffords married Gloria Fraser, a local artist with both a B.F.A. and M.A. in art history from the University of Arizona. Ever the businessman, Giff made sure that a tire formed the base of Spencer and Gloria's wedding cake. Like his first cousin Bruce Paltrow, Spencer married outside the faith; Gloria was and is a practicing Christian Scientist. Their first child, daughter Gabrielle, was born on June 8, 1970. She would be followed shortly thereafter by a second daughter whom they named Melissa. Despite having a non-Jewish mother, Gabrielle has always considered herself Jewish. The Giffords decided early on that they would "encourage their children to learn about other religions." "We were kind of neutral," Spencer Giffords remarked in a 2007 interview. "We let them decide for themselves. That's what Gabby did."
"Gabby" would go to Israel for the first time in 2001 as part of an in-depth tour for legislators (at the time she was a state senator) sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The trip turned out to be "life-changing." Speaking of that journey she recalled, "It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I feel very committed to Judaism." Upon returning to Tucson, Giffords sought out Stephanie Aaron, rabbi of the Reform congregation Chaverim , and began "a deeper exploration of her faith and her heritage." Rabbi Aaron and the congregation considered Giffords to be "technically" Jewish; in the Reform movement a child need have only one Jewish parent--whether mother or father--to be considered Jewish.
Gabrielle began her education at two small schools on Tucson's "tight knit rural Northeast side"--Tanque Verde Elementary and Emily Gray Junior High. She then attended University High School. Remembering the teenaged Gabrielle Giffords, one teacher remarked, "W called her "Gabby,' and not because it was short for her name. She was pretty much a social animal. She was the type of person you would expect to grow up to become a newspaper reporter or something." Ironically, for nine of her twelve precollege years, she attended classes with Tim Bee, who would, like Giffords go on to become a state senator. (In 2008, Bee challenged Giffords in her congressional reelection; she defeated him 56 percent to 41 percent.)
Gabrielle Giffords went on to earn a B.A. in sociology and Latin American history from Scripps College in 1993, and a Masters of Regional Planning from Cornell in 1996. Giffords, already fluent in Spanish, focused academic attention during her Cornell years on Mexico- U.S. relations. She spent one year as a Fulbright Scholar in Chihuahua, Mexico, and was a fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. While at the latter, she came under the wing of Clinton-era labor secretary Robert Reich who became her friend and mentor, and even helped officiate at her wedding. Moreover, Reich was quoted in an October 2008 article in the Arizona Republic as saying, "I wouldn't be surprised if she's the first or second female president of the United States. She's of that caliber."
Despite her Ivy League degree, Giffords is a true daughter of Arizona. She likes to talk about "the accoutrements of Western life: her gun, her truck, and her love of motorcycling." Indeed, one of her first actions after getting elected to Congress was to sponsor a resolution in support of "National Day of the Cowboy." (Gifford's resolution-- H. Res. 984--garnered fifty-two cosponsors. These included two other members of the Congressional Minyan: Californian Bob Filner and Kentuckian John Yarmuth.)
Following Cornell, Gabrielle Giffords spent less than a year working in capital management for Price Waterhouse in New York. Before that year was out, "duty called," and she returned to Arizona to take over the reins of El Campo Tire from her father, who was ill. At age twenty-six, she was CEO and president of a company with one hundred employees and $10 million in annual revenues. Like her father and her grandfather before her, Gabrielle became known for her television spots--her "Buck Stretcher" commercials. As noted above, she sold El Campo Tire to Goodyear in 2000.
Before the year was out, she had run for and won a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. It was during her one term (2000 -"2002) in the lower chamber that she took her first trip to Israel. Immediately upon her return she introduced legislation, which became law, to help protect "Arizonans seeking unpaid benefits under Holocaust-era insurance policies." (One of the thirteen state legislators to vote against Gifford's bill was Representative Randy Graf. He would be Gifford's Republican opponent in her 2006 campaign for Congress.)
In 2002, at age thirty-two, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the state senate. While serving in the state legislature she was also managing partner for a commercial property management company. In November 2005, eleven-term moderate Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe announced his retirement. Giffords immediately became a serious contender for the 8th District seat, which includes Pima County (Tucson), historic Tombstone, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and a long, long border with Mexico.
Resigning her seat in the state senate, she entered the Democratic primary, defeating Patty Weiss, a "well-known Tucson news anchor" and four other candidates by a margin of 54 percent to 31 percent. She then turned her attention to her Republican opponent, Randy Graf, who had challenged Kolbe in the 2004 primary. Graf had attacked Kolbe--the House's only openly gay Republican--for his support of an immigrant guest worker program. And although Kolbe won, it was only by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent, a danger sign for any incumbent. Randy Graf ran once again in the Republican primary, relying as he had two years earlier on his "hard line on immigration." Jim Kolbe refused to endorse him. Both Gabrielle Giffords and the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC) understood that no single-issue candidate could hope to win the seat. Giffords had the issues, the campaign war chest and "a natural flair for attracting attention." Her campaign featured photos of her with her motorcycle and her fiancÃ©, shuttle Discovery astronaut Mark E. Kelly. In October, the NRCC stopped running television ads, effectively ceding the race to Gabrielle Giffords. She wound up winning 54 percent to 42 percent.
As an incoming freshman, Giffords was seated on three prime committees: Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Science and Technology. As a member of the House, Giffords has voted with her party nearly 90 percent of the time. She has shown a particular interest in solar energy--Arizona has more than three hundred sunny days annually--and has sponsored legislation for research and development of solar technology. It passed in the omnibus energy bill of 2007. She has also passed legislation extending tax credits to "manufacturers of solar technology."
In 2008, Giffords was challenged by State Senate President Tim Bee, "a childhood classmate" and former colleague in the state senate. Giffords handily defeated him by more than forty thousand votes, 54.7 percent to 42.8 percent. In that 111th Congress, she was named--perhaps not at all surprisingly for the wife of a NASA astronaut--chair of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. From this post she will be a key player in the crucial decision on whether or not to retire the space-shuttle fleet in October 2010--"as President George W. Bush had commanded--or to authorize more shuttle flights."
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