President Obama shakes the hand of Daniel Hernandez at a January event honoring… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Las Vegas — Daniel Hernandez Jr. achieved a strange sort of celebrity when, a few days into his internship with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office, the congresswoman was shot outside a Tucson supermarket.
Hernandez propped up a gravely wounded Giffords (D-Ariz.) and applied pressure to her bloodied head. His actions were credited with helping save her life.
Since then, Hernandez has attended the State of the Union address, thrown the first pitch at Major League Baseball's All-Star game and recounted the events of Jan. 8 to groups around the country. "But I didn't feel like I was doing anything concrete," Hernandez said in an interview. "I wanted to find a way to do public service."
He will soon get his chance. On Tuesday, Hernandez, 21, was elected to a Tucson-area school board.
"Our entire team is very proud of Daniel," said Jessica Schultz, Giffords' campaign political director. "His commitment to southern Arizona was evident through his work in our office."
During the race, Hernandez said he didn't dwell much on the tragedy that catapulted him to prominence. He made no mention of the shootings, which killed six people and wounded 13, in his candidate statement on the Pima County schools website. His own website said only that he worked on Giffords' 2008 congressional campaign.
In fact, his notoriety sometimes made campaigning difficult. "The reaction was, 'I know you from that, but how does that qualify you to be a school board member?'" he said.
A University of Arizona political science major, Hernandez said he'd been in involved in education advocacy for some time. At first, his main concern was higher education, but his attention soon turned to dwindling funding for kindergarten through high school.
Arizona has slashed spending per student by 24% since fiscal year 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As a school board member in Sunnyside Unified School District, Hernandez said his top priority would be protecting all-day kindergarten.
Hernandez graduated from a high school in the district in 2008, after missing much of his junior year while he struggled with a thyroid disorder called Graves' disease. The next year, he said, he loaded up on classes to earn his diploma on time.
Meanwhile, he'd gotten hooked on politics while working on Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid. Hernandez, who is openly gay, eventually served on the Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.
After the January rampage, Hernandez was taken aback by his turn in the spotlight. He repeatedly said his actions weren't heroic. President Obama disagreed. "We've decided you are a hero because you ran through the chaos to minister to your boss and tended to her wounds and helped keep her alive," Obama said during a memorial service in Tucson.
In the months since, the soft-spoken Hernandez said, he has tried to carry on with his life. He lost a bid in April to become the University of Arizona's student government president. He wrapped up his internship with Giffords' office.
Memories of the shootings linger, of course. Hernandez said he had a tan line on his wrist from campaigning while wearing a bracelet made by fellow Giffords interns. It's turquoise, apparently the congresswoman's favorite color, and says, "Peace. Love. Gabby."