At tribute to Gabrielle Giffords, Democrats speak of her return to Congress

The biggest names in female Democratic politics convened Tuesday for a fundraiser honoring former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

But rather than focus on her resignation from the House in January, Democrats spoke confidently and joyously about her eventual return to Congress.

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“We all know when we talk about future careers in the United States Senate, Gabby will be back,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), a close friend of Giffords.

There were few dry eyes in the crowd of about 450 supporters — including more than 40 members of Congress — who filled the Washington ballroom as EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports female Democrats who favor abortion rights, bestowed its “We are EMILY” award on the three-term congresswoman.

Flanked by Wasserman Schultz, Giffords’s mother, EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Giffords slowly climbed the stairs to the stage wearing a light green suit. She did not address the crowd, however.

The others spoke for her.

“There is nothing more wholesome to the political and governmental process than the increased participation of women in the leadership,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi, who was in the hospital room with Giffords when she opened her eyes for the first time after being shot in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., last January, recalled how in the midst of her recovery, Giffords flew back to Washington in August to ensure that Democrats had the votes they needed to raise the debt ceiling and avert a U.S. default.

“Don’t think these initiatives end the work of Gabby Giffords,” said Pelosi. “They are just the beginning.”

Giffords was holding an event with constituents outside a supermarket in her district when the would-be assassin shot Giffords in the head, killed six people and wounded many others, including her district director, Ron Barber.

Still struggling with an arduous rehabilitation process, Giffords decided to step down one year later, and asked Barber to run to replace her. Barber will square off in a June special election with Jesse Kelly, the Republican who almost defeated Giffords when she ran for reelection in 2010.

In the lead-up to the assassination attempt, Giffords faced intense and violence-infused rhetoric from her opponents, including a “target list” circulated by former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) that showed Giffords in a rifle’s crosshairs, and a gun that someone dropped at a campaign event. The shooting prompted a nationwide conversation about the need for civility in politics — a theme that emerged repeatedly as Giffords was feted by her former colleagues.

Schriock said Giffords had endured some of the ugliest talk ever heard in politics, but that rather than fight back with name-calling, Giffords remained civil.

"When we see you standing proud with your girlfriends, Debbie and Kirsten, there's not a woman in America who doesn't know that is what awesome girl power looks like," said Schriock, referring to Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), another close friend of Giffords.

Gloria Giffords, the congresswoman’s mother, said her daughter refused to give up and was always looking for ways to put people at ease.

”They believed in her message: Fairness. Equality,” she said of Giffords’s supporters.

She paused, visibly struggling to utter the next words as complete silence enveloped the ballroom.

“Self-sacrifice. Better community. A state and a union.”

In the crowd as Giffords received the award were incumbent female House members seeking higher office in the Senate, including Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

They were joined by female Democratic candidates from across the country whom EMILY's List is backing this cycle, including Val Demings from Florida, Cheri Bustos from Illinois and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, who served in the State Legislature with Giffords when the former congresswoman was a state senator.

"She was a real role model to me," said Sinema, choking up slightly as she spoke. "When she ran for Congress in 2006, I remember thinking to myself, 'I could do that one day.' "