WASHINGTON – The signals are strong. One year after being shot in the head, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is on a mission to return to the job she so clearly loved.
Her husband and people near the three-term congresswoman say she is highly motivated to recover from her injuries and get back to work in Washington, potentially using her inspirational story as a way to mend political differences in the nation’s capital. She faces a May deadline to get on the November ballot, meaning she has a few months to decide her next step.
Her future will depend on a recovery that has progressed in remarkable fashion over the past year as she is now able to walk and talk. Her only interview occurred with ABC’s Diane Sawyer nearly 10 months after the shooting and showed how far she has come, but also how far she has to go. At the time, she did not speak in complete sentences and repeated her words to make her point.
“No, better. Um, better, better,” she said when asked about returning to Washington.
The day after the interview ran, her congressional office released an audio recording that showed she had made progress in her communication skills in the two weeks that had elapsed between the interview and its airing. She read from a script and an aide said it took multiple tries before she was comfortable with the result.
“I’m getting stronger. I’m getting better,” Giffords said. “There is a lot to say. I will speak better.”
Giffords returned to Tucson on Friday from Houston to attend ceremonies to mark today’s one-year anniversary of the shooting that killed six and injured her and 12 others.
Her first stop was her office, where she participated in an emotional ceremony to honor slain staffer Gabe Zimmerman. Her husband, Mark Kelly, posted a photo of the couple on a visit Saturday to a trailhead outside Tucson named in honor of Zimmerman.
Events will take place throughout today in Tucson, and Giffords is expected to attend at least one.
Giffords has cast one vote since the shooting. She surprised colleagues in August by returning to Washington to vote for legislation raising the nation’s debt ceiling. The debate leading up to the vote had been among the most bitter and partisan of the year.
Giffords’ staff consults with her when working on major initiatives, such as trying to fend off the Air Force’s efforts to move the 612th Air and Space Operations Center out of Tucson. The staff also works on individual constituent requests, such as helping war veterans and their widows obtain benefits or in securing a Tucson woman’s flight out of Egypt during demonstrations in early 2011. Aides say that Giffords now participates in teleconferences with members of her staff about once a week.
Giffords has captivated the nation as she recovers. Going into Christmas week, her office had 24,880 letters that had poured in from all over the world. Students from 428 schools mailed her a get-well card. Many well-wishers send her hand-made gifts, such as quilts, jewelry and paintings. People also send CDs with their favorite music and books with uplifting themes that they hope will cheer her up.
“Almost every day, we get more gifts” said Giffords spokesman Mark Kimble. “People routinely come in, asking if she’s here and if they can talk to her.”
On Capitol Hill, colleagues say they’re optimistic that she’ll come back, but are sensitive about getting ahead of Giffords.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she called Kelly earlier in the day to emphasize that Democratic lawmakers were thinking of the congresswoman as the anniversary of the shooting approached.
Giffords speaks with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz probably more than any other member of Congress. When asked about her colleague’s return, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee said Giffords was focused on her recovery for now.
“She’s making a lot of progress. She’s doing great,” Wasserman Shultz said. “She still has a long way to go.”
Giffords has until May 30 to file nominating signatures to have her name placed on the ballot for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District. Kelly told Arizona Public Media that she won’t wait until the last minute to make her decision, and he has suggested that she might wait until 2014 to mount her political comeback.
He said Giffords “is the exact same person” she was before the shooting and just has to learn how to communicate as well as she did before.
“She doesn’t remember the day she was shot, but if you back up one day, her memory is as good as mine for anything we have done together over the last seven years that I have known her,” he said.