Still faces tough re-election bid in mostly GOP-area
Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on the District 8 congressional race. A profile of Arizona Senate President Tim Bee, R-Tucson, ran Tuesday.
Two years ago, voters in the state’s mostly Republican 8th Congressional District elected Democratic state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords to Congress. After two years of tireless work for her constituents, she’s hoping they’ll do it again Nov. 4.
Giffords in 2006 ran against former state Rep. Randy Graf, a candidate so conservative that Jim Kolbe, an 11-term Republican congressman from the district who was retiring, refused to endorse him.
She has no such luxury in 2008. Giffords is facing state Senate President Tim Bee, a likable, well-financed and established Republican political leader with a maverick streak of working with Democrats.
She also has to overcome a Republican-to-Democrat voter registration edge in the district of 38 percent to 35 percent and a job approval rating of 15 percent for Congress, according to the Real Clear Politics roundup of polls.
Giffords, seeming to sense that reality from the outset, has been a constant presence in her district. She represents about half of the metro Tucson area, including Tucson’s East Side, the Catalina Foothills and the Oro Valley area, plus most of southeastern Arizona, including Green Valley and Cochise County.
She’s held numerous meetings with constituents, even at shopping centers, and negotiated a heated Green Valley-area debate over placement of a Border Patrol checkpoint.
She also reached out to veterans groups and retired military leaders such as Gen. John Wickham, retired Army chief of staff under Ronald Reagan, to advise her on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wickham, nationally renowned on military issues, lauds Giffords’ freshman term.
“I’ve worked with a lot of folks in Congress, and Gabrielle Giffords is one of the best,” Wickham said. “She does her homework, and she’s thorough in terms of the issues. And she’s intellectual enough to grasp complicated issues.”
In Washington, she’s gained admission into the deficit-phobic Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats, and The Hill magazine named her one of the most centrist members of the House of Representatives.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, first elected in 2002 when Democrats were a minority in the House, said Giffords’ place in the freshman class of 2006 has helped her.
“The whole class being responsible for putting us in the majority, they’ve received a lot of attention from leadership,” Grijalva said.
That’s put Giffords into a position rare for newly elected members, and she has taken advantage of it.
“She’s gotten assigned to key committees (Armed Services and Science and Technology), and she’s gotten things done that she wanted to get done,” Grijalva said.
But Bee says Giffords has aligned herself 90 percent of the time with Democratic House leadership, even as she’s worked to distance herself from a partisan image.
Even young voters, who may change the face of the electorate in supporting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, are independent enough to give Giffords fits because of Congress’ low approval rating.
“Congressional races are much more intensely partisan than voting at the top of the ticket,” said Earl de Berge, president of the Phoenix-based polling group the Behavior Research Center. But young voters are often voting wild cards.
“They are going to cross-ticket vote,” de Berge said. “If they bring an inclination to vote for Obama, there’s no guarantee they are going to stick to that.”
Tony Nutini, 24, supported Giffords in 2006, volunteered for the Pima County Democratic Party and calls Barack Obama his hero. But he’s now supporting Bee.
“I just don’t think this Congress has been able to get things done,” Nutini said. “Tim Bee would be better able to get something done.”
It’s a crossfire Giffords has had to get used to as she tries to establish her independent bona fides and work with party leadership.
“There’s partisanship at the state level,” Giffords said. “But in Washington, people have been hating each other for a long time. There’s no hate like an old hate.”
Giffords points to legislation that she got approved during the 110th Congress: a ban on the sale of F-14 fighter jet parts into foreign markets that could find their way to Iran, and an extension of the federal E-Verify system to confirm that job applicants are legally in the U.S. She also championed the solar energy tax credit, which eventually was included in the recent $700 billion bailout of credit markets.
Giffords voted against the bailout before she voted for it. She called the first bill, which failed in the House, a bad package that was improved when it came back with her tax credit and other items attached, including a tax cut for manufacturers of wooden arrows used as toys.
“At first, voter calls to my district were split 50-50,” Giffords said. “Fifty percent said ‘no’ and 50 percent said ‘hell no.’ ”
But that changed when retired constituents called saying their 401(k) accounts had taken a beating during the ensuing stock market sell-off.
Bee has criticized Giffords’ vote for a bill laden with special funding he calls “pork.” Giffords stands by her vote, even if it costs her the election.
“The Congress had to act,” she said. “You can point to anything and call it ‘pork.’ ”
On the economy, Giffords takes a two-phased approach. She argues that help is needed to unclog choked-off credit markets, while she takes a long-term view on issues such as energy, education and health care.
She has been particularly active on the issue of solar power and trying to extend the tax credits to give investors in the green energy enough security over time to build the necessary infrastructure.
Giffords says solar power can transform Arizona’s economy and give the U.S. a stable, dependable energy supply.
“We need renewable energy,” she said. “The price of oil is down to $80 a barrel, but we need those investments to end our dependency on foreign oil, we need it for climate change and we need it for innovation.”
She also wants to improve American school kids’ proficiency in science and math to make sure the country has a work force ready for the changing economy.
She’s backed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) legislation that would double funding for science programs and get teachers to go back to school and learn more about the subjects they teach.
She opposes the No Child Left Behind Act because it lacks promised funding and punishes states that don’t have the money to spend on schools.
“No Child Left Behind should not be reauthorized unless it’s fully funded,” she said. “The states need to have an equal playing field.”
She also would expand health care coverage, saying the system is broken if it leaves 47 million Americans without coverage.
“The health care system is in a crisis, and people are suffering,” Giffords said. “I was hopeful we could expand coverage.”
On immigration reform, Giffords’ efforts to secure a comprehensive bill failed.
The issue proved too hot, and no bill made it to the floor in either the House or Senate.
“Ignoring the problem has not made it go away,” Giffords said. “I’m looking at every tool I can use to address the issue.”
She’s taken an enforcement-first approach to immigration but also argues that something must be done to provide a path to legality for the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country now.
Also close to home, Giffords defends her special “earmark” requests, which circumvent the regular budget process, because it’s the only way to get needed funds for her district, she says.
She points to the Fort Huachuca battle lab and a domestic violence shelter in Sierra Vista as two local beneficiaries of a process she would still like to see reformed.
“It’s a messy process and needs to be reformed, but it does go through Appropriations,” Giffords said.
Giffords has voted repeatedly to continue funding for U.S. troops in Iraq without a timeline for withdrawal, bucking the Democratic leadership even though she calls the war “the worst decision this country ever made.”
She’s made two trips to Iraq and said she refuses to cut off money for troops.
“There’s a big difference between the war and the warrior,” Giffords said, in defending her votes for funds.
At the end of her first term, Giffords faces what is traditionally the toughest re-election bid for a member of Congress – the first. She says she is a different candidate than two years ago.
“I ran as a state senator, and federal issues are different,” she said, in a not-so-subtle poke at her opponent. “I had to assemble teams of local experts as advisers. Now I’m speaking from experience.”
GABRIELLE GIFFORDS BIO
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 38, is a Tucson native and former elementary school classmate of her Republican opponent, Tim Bee. She graduated from University High School and went to Scripps College in California, earning a B.A. and a Fulbright Scholarship that led her to study in Mexico. She earned an M.A. in regional planning from Cornell University and worked in New York City before returning home to take over her family’s El Campo Tire firm from 1996-2000.
She served in the Legislature from 2000 until 2005, when she resigned to run for Congress.
She is married to NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.
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