For the first time since being seriously wounded a year ago, US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) will appear at a large-scale public event in her Arizona hometown Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shootings.
Her visit is about paying tribute to the 18 other shooting victims – six of whom died – and helping to rebuild a Tucson community shaken to its core. She and her husband, Mark Kelly, will attend a candlelight vigil at the University of Arizona Sunday evening to honor the victims. Mr. Kelly is expected to speak.
Though the event has no political overtones, the growing question on the minds of many here is whether Congresswoman Giffords is ready, and willing, to return to Washington.
Giffords, who was shot in the head at a meet-and-greet outside a Safeway supermarket in northwest Tucson, has been undergoing therapy in Houston. In November, her television appearance with ABC’s Diane Sawyer showed that Giffords had made great strides in her recovery but still struggled to speak and walk.
Until then, her constituents had been privy to virtually no information on her progress and speculation about her future has intensified with time. A three-term member of Congress, Giffords faces a May deadline to decide whether to run for reelection.
The memorial event "does have implications for whether or not she’s going to run again,” said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst and professor emeritus at Arizona State University. “This is part of the process, as much as she’s beloved and respected there, people still need to be represented and they’re going to be looking in terms of how she appears in this setting.”
With the deadline to file candidacy papers approaching, potential candidates are starting to get nervous, says Bruce Ash, a Republican National Committee member from Arizona. “This is about the time that, if it were an open seat, people would start coming forward.”
But he says, on Jan. 8 at least, his focus will not be on politics. “I’m sure there will be lots of speculation on whether she’s running or not,” says Mr. Ash. “But the only thing that’s important is Gabrielle Giffords returning to full health.”
Still, a slew of Republicans are exploring a potential run, and several Democrats are positioning themselves to launch a candidacy if Giffords chooses not to run. Giffords's husband, a retired astronaut, often is named as a possible candidate, but he has said his job is to help his wife recover.
Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party in Tucson, says he has a hunch Giffords and her family, “as much as they love this community,” will make an announcement on Giffords’s plans sooner rather than later.
“If she’s going to make a decision on her future, my expectation is that it’ll probably be before the end of the month,” he says.
Should Giffords opt to seek reelection, she would have plenty of funds to run a campaign, Mr. Rogers says. “She’s raised more money at this point in the race than she did two years ago at this point. So she’s in very good shape, moneywise.”
The congresswoman could easily win another term, says Mr. Merrill, the political scientist. “If it’s apparent that she can communicate effectively and has good cognitive skills, it would be fruitless for anybody to run against her.”
Her husband also would make a formidable contender, Merrill adds. “This is a guy who can talk about courage, he can talk about the United States and pride in the government, pride in America. He represents so much more than just individual issue positions.”
The couple on Saturday returned to the site of the shooting for the first time, her husband tweeted. Giffords also took part in a ceremony in her Tucson office for Gabe Zimmerman, an aide who was killed that day, and hiked a desert trail named after him.
On Sunday, all eyes will be on Giffords at the evening event expected to bring together thousands of people to observe the somber occasion.
"It’s a very emotional weekend for her, for all of us, for many people here in Tucson,” says spokesman Mark Kimble, who witnessed the shootings. “She wanted to be here for it.”
The accused gunman, Jared Loughner, remains in a prison hospital. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was found unfit to stand trial in May and is undergoing treatment.