Book Excerpt: They Call Me a Hero
BY Daniel Hernandez
February 05 2013 6:00 AM ET
“Gun!” someone said, and it clicked: I remembered some of the things that had happened over the past several months. There had been a campaign event where an angry constituent had brought a gun but had dropped it. And the door of Gabby Giffords’s congressional office in Tucson had been shot at last March, after the vote on health care. Gabe Zimmerman, Gabby’s aide, had come up to me that morning and said, “If you see anything suspicious, let me know.”
So I heard shots, and the first thing I thought of was Gabby — making sure she was OK. I was about 30 to forty feet away from the congresswoman. I heard the shots and ran toward the sound.
I don’t consider myself a hero. I did what I thought anyone should have done. Heroes are people who spend a lifetime committed to helping others. I was just a twenty-year-old intern who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
That Saturday, January 8, 2011, started like an ordinary day. I got dressed in business casual clothes: shirt, argyle sweater, khakis — what I wear to the office. Gabe Zimmerman had organized a Congress on Your Corner event at a shopping center just north of Tucson. Representative Giffords liked to meet her constituents in person and talk to them about what was on their minds, and discuss what was happening in Congress that they were concerned about. Weeks before, I had applied for an internship at her office, and they had accepted me halfway through the interview. I was supposed to start on January 12, when school was scheduled to begin. I’m a student at the University of Arizona and major in political science. But the office was short-staffed, and I’d volunteered to start early.
I had known Gabby for years. I’d worked on her campaigns since I’d met her in June 2008. She’s the kindest, warmest individual you will ever meet. “I don’t do handshakes, honey,” she always says. “I do hugs.”
Gabe had asked me to be at the Safeway market at the corner of Ina and Oracle by 9 a.m. to help with the setup. By mistake I went to the wrong Safeway and didn’t get to the right one till 9:30. Everyone else on staff was already there, and they were almost done with setting up folding tables and a few chairs in front of the store. I put a sandwich board outside the market near the entrance that advertised the event. Then I helped Gabe hang a banner from poles that read, “Gabrielle Giffords, United States Congress,” and the Arizona flag and the American flag. I made sure we had pens that were actually working so people could sign in.
Ever thoughtful Gabe was the consummate social worker. He was beloved by all who knew him for his kind heart and the good head on his shoulders. He was what we called the Constituent Whisperer, because he had the uncanny ability to take even the angriest constituent and calm them down.
It was cold that morning but clear. Pam Simon, the community outreach coordinator, went into the market for coffee. Before she went she asked Gabe if he’d like anything. But Gabe said no and instead made sure to ask her if she had asked me if I wanted anything. I thought it was so incredibly sweet of Gabe to ask Pam on my behalf. Sometimes interns are forgotten in situations like this.
When constituents started arriving, they had to go through me. I was standing with my clipboard to register them at the back wall of the market close to the adjoining Walgreens drugstore. That’s where they had to get in line. Gabby was about forty feet away near the entrance to the Safeway market. As people lined up waiting to speak to her, they wrote down their names, addresses, and phone numbers. We were keeping track of how many folks stopped by and how many lived in the district. I talked to everyone.
A girl named Christina-Taylor Green was there with her neighbor Suzi Hileman. Suzi signed in, and I made sure that Christina-Taylor got to sign in too, because she was so young and so excited to be meeting a congresswoman. I asked Christina-Taylor how old she was, and she told me she was nine. And I asked her what school she went to, and she said Mesa Verde Elementary. We talked briefly about her being on the student council. Then she said she wanted to ask Gabby a question, but she didn’t want to ask something stupid and needed help. We had information on the table that had been issued, in the form of press releases, on the accomplishments of the congresswoman. Even though it was way over Christina-Taylor’s head, I gave her copies of three different press releases.
Then I went to the back of the line to continue registering people.
Gabe had set up stanchions, the metal poles with polyester bands that are used at banks to help customers form lines. He liked to have them at events so that we had a clearly defined entry and a clearly defined exit. There were chairs against the brick wall where those at the very front could sit before speaking to the congresswoman.
At 9:55 Gabby pulled up in her car. At ten o’clock she greeted everyone and said, “Thank you for being with us on a chilly Saturday morning.” She wore a bright red jacket. Gabe stood nearby in case a constituent were to ask for help from the office. Ron Barber, Gabby’s dedicated district director, stood at her side as well, listening and watching proudly as his boss carefully and adeptly talked with constituents. Jim and Doris Tucker were at the head of the line, but the first person who actually spoke to her was Judge John Roll. He had stopped by to say hello. Then she talked to the Tuckers and Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard.