By Danielle Cantor
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, newly elected in November from Arizona’s 8th District, did not always aspire to inhabit an office on Capitol Hill. The third-generation Arizonan found early success—first in regional economic development, then at the helm of her family’s tire and automotive business. But as her 30th birthday approached, Giffords’ commitment to public service drew her toward public office. She ran, she won and, for the next five years, she represented Tucson in the Arizona legislature—first in the House of Representatives and later as the youngest woman elected to the Arizona Senate. Now, only a few weeks into the 110th Congress, her voice already rings clear through votes in favor of increasing the minimum wage, funding stem cell research, and investing in renewable sources of energy.
This has been a historic gathering of the 110th Congress. What was it like to be there on the floor?
Breathtaking, awe-inspiring, to cast a vote for the first woman speaker of the House in U.S. history. There was such great diversity of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic backgrounds. I really feel that the [Democratic] caucus represents the American people.
What inspired you to seek public office?
I don’t have any background in politics. I was born and raised in southern Arizona and, after college and graduate school, I went to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers for a bit, and then was asked to come home and run my family’s tire and automotive business. When our parents need us, that’s what we do. I learned the tire business from the ground up and did it for a couple years.
Frankly I got frustrated with opening my newspaper each day and seeing Arizona behind other states in terms of people funding, mental health funding, protecting the environment…So in 2000, I decided to run for political office. It wasn’t a person who inspired me; it was just a question of, “Why wring your hands when you can fix the tractor?” I jumped in there to see what I could do, and I haven’t looked back since.
Who has helped you develop your leadership skills?
There have been several people. Dorothy Finley, who owns a beer distribution company in Tucson, is a business mentor of mine. Also, there’s a former state senator, Elaine Richardson, who took me under her wing when I first decided to run for office. But I honestly feel you can learn from any person you come across, even if sometimes the lessons are less obvious than others. You can’t do things by yourself. You need to put teams of people together and give the people you work with tools to be successful.
What advice have you received from veteran women in Congress?
“Wear sensible shoes!” It’s actually really good advice because the walking is challenging, especially serving on three committees. But on a more serious note, I’ve been told not to be afraid to jump in and ask questions, and have been reminded that even though I’m a new member, I have just as much right as anyone else in Congress to get information and represent my constituents. The new speaker has given a lot of power and autonomy to the freshmen. When it comes time to ask questions on panel, preference has been given to freshman members, which was not the case in the past.
How has Judaism impacted your life, in terms of your choices and the causes you’ve been involved with?
I think about the values, instilled in me by my Jewish relatives, of tolerance, of understanding, and of a deep desire to assist and to educate others—particularly after I visited Israel as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. It was a profound experience [for me] to reconnect with that philosophical approach to life and to humanity, and to look at the big picture and understand our interconnectedness. I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs. Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly. I am a member of Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, where I have a mentor, Rabbi Stephanie Aaron. It was wonderful going through classes for adult Jewish education. It’s been a journey for me.