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Will Gabrielle Giffords keep her House seat?

It's unclear when or if the Arizona congresswoman recovering from gunshot wounds might return to work, but her staff is keeping her offices running, and not even political opponents are talking about vacating her seat.

January 19, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tucson and Washington — About a dozen staff members were hard at work in the district office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Tuesday, even as their boss remained hospitalized across town.

There were refugee immigration cases to take care of, a Bronze Star to present to a Korean War veteran and dozens of well-wishers arriving with gifts, including lunch platters and plastic bracelets labeled "Remember 1-8-11."

Two staff members have yet to return: Ron Barber, the office director, and Pamela Simon, the outreach coordinator, who were both wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting.

Daniel Hernandez, 20, the intern who ran to help Giffords after she was shot, stopped by to pitch in. So did the father of Gabriel Zimmerman, 30, the Giffords aide who was killed in the rampage.

Giffords' staff members, who have kept the office open since the shooting, said they were operating on the assumption that the three-term Democratic congresswoman would eventually return to work.

"She fought really hard in the last election to have the right to remain in this job," spokesman Mark Kimble said. "We're just going to have to hold things together the best we can until she can get back."

The question on many constituents' minds in the last week has been whether Giffords will ever be able to return to her job.

Dr. Michael Lemole, who is treating Giffords at Tucson's University Medical Center, said she would probably leave the hospital within about a week to begin rehabilitation.

But he said there was no way to know how long it would be before she could return to work — or whether that would even be possible.

"We've seen the full spectrum of recoveries after an incident like this," he said. "At the end of the day, we'll have to see her do what she does."

Some Arizona legal experts had raised the possibility that Giffords' seat could be vacated under state law if she were unable to return to Congress within 90 days. But a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State's Office said that law only applied to state and local officials.

Regardless, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Jan Brewer said the governor had no intention of calling for a special election or trying to vacate the seat in any way. "We've deemed it to be far too early and entirely inappropriate to speculate, analyze or consider," Paul Senseman said.

A spokesman for Jesse Kelly, the Republican who ran against Giffords in the last election, said Kelly had not made any inquiries about filling the seat. "Everyone's emotions are very raw," John Ellinwood said. "What we'd like to see happen is a full recovery."

Vacating Giffords' seat would require a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives, said Matthew Benson, spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett.

In Washington, Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said there had been no push to vacate Giffords' seat. "We certainly hope and expect that will not be necessary," Steel said.

Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University, said a decision on vacating the seat would probably be as much about emotions as the law.

"It would still be very tough for someone to move to declare her seat vacant," Zelizer said. "She has become a symbol to much of the nation, a symbol for the nation for hope about the political process."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said that there was "no inclination whatsoever" by anyone in Congress to vacate the seat. "Nobody is talking about that. I don't think they should at this point," he said.

He said Giffords' staff was capable of working on constituents' behalf in her absence with the help of staff from other congressional offices. "Everybody is pitching in where they need to. I think the constituents will be OK," he said.

Aides in Giffords' Washington office on Tuesday were tracking legislation on the issues she cared about most, including solar energy and border security issues, Kimble said. They plan to hold meetings with officials in her stead and keep "track of anything she has missed so that they can bring her up to speed when she returns," he said.

Back at Giffords' Tucson office, there were get-well cards to process — about 10,000 so far, sorted Tuesday by a team of four volunteer interns. In a back office, Sara Hummel Rajca, 31, was answering constituent phone calls and e-mails on immigration cases.

Hummel Rajca, who was standing next to Giffords when she was shot, returned to work the following Monday.

"Time doesn't stop," she said. "I have a man who has a wife and five kids waiting in a refugee camp in Sudan, and he's been here three years. He needs to know what's happening."

Joni Jones, the office manager, was juggling a variety of tasks: a spreadsheet of first responders to thank, a delivery of teddy bears and a presentation of sympathy letters signed by 135,000 supporters.

Many constituents who visited a memorial outside the office said they were confident that Giffords' staff could serve them in her absence.

Still, they were afraid Republicans might try to remove her. "That's frightening to us, to lose her voice," said Karen Kahn, 44, who works at an import-export business in Tucson.

Giffords has yet to indicate her intentions. Her husband, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, confined his first interviews this week to discussions of her health, which he said was improving.

Ross Zimmerman, 58, whose son's memorial was Sunday, said he was confident that Giffords would try to return.

"She's a very determined person," Zimmerman said. "Those of us who know her know that."

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