WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama walked down the aisle before his State of the Union address Tuesday, he did not head straight for the podium. Snaking through dozens of hugs and handshakes, the president made his way toward the far right of the hall and embraced Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Shortly before, the chamber had erupted in thunderous applause at Giffords’ arrival; cheers continued as she sat down, greeting her peers and waving to her husband, Mark Kelly, who sat in the first lady’s box.
“It was just great to have her there,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who sat with Giffords. “Last year there was an empty chair next to the Arizona delegation, it was much better to have her there.”
On Sunday morning, the Democratic congresswoman from Arizona released a Youtube video on her personal website announcing her intention to resign in order to focus on her rehabilitation. Late Tuesday afternoon, Giffords’ website announced that she would resign Wednesday after a session of the House. Giffords was shot in the head on Jan. 8, 2011, during a constituent event outside a grocery store in Tucson that killed six people.
Arizona State Sen. Lisa Lopez was listening to the radio early Sunday morning as she worked around her house in Tucson. Her ears perked up when she heard that her good friend Giffords would resign from the House of Representatives.
“I had a wave of relief just wash over my body,” Lopez said in a telephone interview. “Gabby is my friend, she is not a politician to me, she is my friend. I have always wanted what I think is best for her and… she has come to the realization that what is best for her is to focus on herself and to focus on her recovery.”
Lopez first met Giffords during their 2000 campaigns for the Arizona state Senate. The two became close friends after they both won, sharing office space in the State Capitol building and traveling together. When Giffords married astronaut Mark Kelly, Lopez threw the bridal shower as one of her bridesmaids. Giffords returned the favor when Lopez walked down the aisle in 2010.
In the resignation video, Giffords spoke clearly but slowly, her speech still affected by her injuries. Lopez met with her friend later Sunday, soon after Giffords’ announcement. Although the lawmaker’s words were short, Lopez said she could tell that Giffords was comfortable with her decision.
“She appeared relieved to me, I think it was a great burden off of her,” Lopez said. “I believe she is fully aware of what her limitations are right now in terms of being able to communicate and to get around, her physical limitations…The one thing about Gabby is that whenever she did something, she always wanted to do it to the utmost to her ability, to go the extra mile. And I know that she has felt bad that she has not been able to do that.”
Paula Aboud, the Democratic minority whip of the Arizona Senate who served in the legislature with Giffords, said she felt a mixture of emotions after viewing Giffords’ announcement.
“Certainly, watching the Youtube of Gabby, we were extremely sad, and yet after the sadness, I felt a lot of joy in her happiness,” Aboud said. “It looks like she has already moved on to the next stage of her life.”
On her last day in the House on Wednesday, Giffords is expected to vote on her own bill to crack down on drug smuggling into the United States. It’s a bill that her former communications director, C.J. Karamargin, said is a good example of Giffords’ commitment to bipartisanship because it is co-sponsored by Flake.
“The border security problem is not a Democrat problem or a Republican problem, it’s an American problem,” he said. “Gabby knew that and she sought to solve it in ways that transcended all party lines and that is the way she did everything. I think that is why she will be missed so much.”
Karamargin, who worked for Giffords for all but five months of her time as a House member, said with her resignation Americans are losing a great leader. He hopes Giffords can one day return to public service.
“I think Gabby was born to be a public servant,” Karamargin said. “She is the type of person we want to have representing us, being our advocate and our voice in Congress. The approval rating for Congress…is abysmal. Yet here is this one person, this one member of Congress whose story, whose recovery, whose fight to recover has stirred our imaginations, captured our attention in such a vivid way. Gabby has the ability to make us feel proud of our government again.”
That pride was felt by those present in the House during the State of the Union, said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
“It was the highlight of the night,” Franks said. “The tenderness and just the winsome heart that she has displayed through all of this is a testimony that human spirits like hers transcend nearly any kind of human tragedy.”