TUCSON, Ariz. — With Rep. Gabrielle Giffords recuperating in a Houston hospital, not voting in Congress or making appearances, you might think that her Tucson office would be quieter these days. You would be wrong.
The office has been bustling with all sorts of activity in the weeks since she was shot as staffers proudly carry out the type of constituent work that has been a hallmark of Giffords' time in Congress, whether it's explaining Social Security benefits to senior citizens or helping out voters facing foreclosure. Her staff is also responding to the thousands of notes of condolences that have poured in from all over the country since the shooting.
Immediately after the Jan. 8 shootings, communications director C.J. Karamargin wondered whether they should open the office the following Monday. He polled the staff, and the vote was unanimous.
"We're here to do a job," he says. "We're here to serve people, and no act of violence would deter us. People look at this office as not just as sort of a small little outpost of the federal government, but as an outpost of our representative form of government. ... It's like, we HAVE to do this."
Despite being shot twice, Pam Simon couldn't stay away from the office any longer. She returned to work this week to find her desk festooned with balloons and streamers. A box containing a new computer awaited her.
Then she poked her head into Gabe Zimmerman's office. His personal belongings were gone, and other people were there, busily taking calls and making notes.
Zimmerman was one of the six who didn't survive the shooting spree that wounded Simon, Giffords and 11 others.
"It seems like there are vacant places in the office that all those that came back immediately have adjusted to," the 63-year-old outreach coordinator says, sitting in a lonely conference room after meeting with a constituent. "Everybody's working very hard, but there's a difference in the spirit. Because we're missing people."
Giffords' office was already one of the busiest in the country, handling around four times the average constituent caseload of all congressional staffs, according to a survey by the Speaker's office. A little over a week ago, the office celebrated a milestone — its 10,000 case.
If anything, the shootings have only raised the office's profile, and it's been busier than before the rampage.
"Their problems don't stop," Karamargin said. "Their concerns about border security, the economy, they haven't suddenly ceased because of what happened on Jan. 8. So we haven't ceased."
Giffords' office is on the first floor of a stucco building not far from downtown Tucson.
The first thing you see when you walk in is a large antique leather saddle sitting atop a saw horse, a gourd canteen dangling from the pommel. On one wall is a large map of the 8th Congressional District; on the opposite wall is an even larger picture of Giffords spouse Mark Kelly's last space shuttle launch in 2008. Landscapes and still lifes painted by Giffords' mother, Gloria, hang throughout the office.
Just inside the front door, a small red plaque warns "It is unlawful to carry a firearm into a federal facility."
On a recent day, Giffords' staff worked to:
- Prevent an 86-year-old veteran from being evicted from his nursing home.
- Contact the Department of Veterans Affairs about a terminally ill vet who has been awaiting a disability rating decision since 2001.
- Send tax forms to a constituent who doesn't have Internet access.
- Explain a woman's Social Security benefits.
- Stop a small business owner's home from being foreclosed.
"People are saying, 'I'm so sorry to bother you with this. I understand if you can't get back to me, but here's what's going on,'" said Amanda Sapir, one of five constituent service representatives in the state.
"People are being so gracious. And we're actually having to tell people, 'It's REALLY OK to call us and ask for help. This is our work. We love to do it and, so, please.'"
Karamagrin said the work done here informs the message Giffords takes to the House floor.
Sapir, whose specialty is banking and housing issues, reported to Giffords last year that a large number of foreclosures appeared to have been done without proper paperwork. Giffords called for a moratorium.
"There is a direct correlation oftentimes between the types of case work that we're seeing and what is happening on the policy level," says Karamargin. "The caseworkers are the front lines. They are the eyes and ears on the ground of what's going on."
And behind every one of these cases is an individual.
Four years ago, someone had forged John Fulton's name and taken out nearly $90,000 in student loans. The fraud destroyed the 45-year-old Army veteran's credit and prevented him from getting the security clearance he needed to work for the Department of Defense.
Fulton went to the U.S. Department of Education, the Inspector General and the Attorney General, with no success. Finally, he contacted Giffords.
"Nobody wanted to help. Nobody wanted to listen to me. And they're the only ones that would."
About two weeks ago, Fulton got word that the forgery had been confirmed. He is now working security on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Earlier this week, Fulton came in to deliver a tin pan of coffee cake his fiancee had baked. He also left a note for Giffords.
"My emotions are running high with all that has happened," he wrote. "I hope and pray that you know what a great service you have done for one simple couple, and how it has changed our lives to levels we never thought we would see. I hope you get this, and that it helps to put a beautiful smile on your face."
Since the shootings, the office has received more than 20,000 gifts and expressions of sympathy. Interns are busily cataloguing them.
Giffords made a point of responding to everyone who contacted her office (Police searching shooting suspect Jared Loughner's home found a letter from Giffords, thanking him for attending the 2007 forum that may have been the genesis of his anger toward her.) Karamargin said every card, note, e-mail and tray of cookies will be acknowledged.
"It will take up some time," he says. "But I think it's also a snapshot, really, of a community that has responded in the best possible way to the worst possible event."
Although the office is busier than ever, there are holes.
Just outside the reception area hangs a dry-erase board with little magnetic pegs showing who's in an out. Beside Zimmerman's name, a blue peg marks the "IN" column; to the right someone has written in blue marker "IN OUR HEARTS!"
Friday would have been his 31st birthday.
"The loss of Gabe Zimmerman is a heartbreak beyond words that I'm not even convinced will ever heal," says Sapir. "He was a friend, the most phenomenal supervisor you could ask for. And a beautiful soul."
A tribute to Zimmerman was posted Friday on the injured congresswoman's Facebook page.
The posting includes a link to a four-minute video montage of Zimmerman's life and says: "We are thinking of our friend and colleague Gabe Zimmerman who would have turned 31 today. Though cut far too short, we honor a life well-lived."
Simon knows how lucky she is to be alive, let alone back to work.
The bullet that pierced her chest missed her vital organs and lodged in her hip. It became infected and was removed about a week later.
The other slug passed through her right forearm, missing the bones and nerves completely. She feels discomfort when she writes, so she's typing more these days.
Simon — a longtime junior high teacher who met Giffords on a lobbying visit in 2001, when Giffords was a newly elected state representative — says she needed to come back for her own peace of mind. And as one of the office "moms," Simon says the staff needed her, if for no other reason than to keep the snack drawer stocked and the medicine chest filled.
"I think it's a little bit like getting on the horse again," she says. "These are my friends, as well as my colleagues."