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As if She’ll Return Any Moment

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been gone 10 weeks, but her offices must keep functioning. Legislative Director Peter Ambler and Chief of Staff Pia Carusone, her top aides, run things in her absence.

In committee hearings, the staff relies on Giffords’ colleagues to ask the questions that they think she would want answers to. Last Tuesday, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) asked questions during a Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing that had been provided to him by Giffords’ office.

And Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), whose office says he is “a colleague and close friend” to Giffords, asks questions on her behalf during his hearings.

“Adam works closely with her office to ensure her priorities are addressed,” a Smith aide said.

Giffords’ colleagues have also helped with fundraising: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and several other Democratic lawmakers attended a fundraiser last Tuesday that collected more than $125,000 for the Arizona Democrat.

A Day in the Life

On a recent afternoon, the office is operating much like any of the other 434. Carusone calls an applicant for a caseworker position that’s open in the Tucson, Ariz., office. “When can you start?” she asks, then moments later suggests the following Monday. “We have a lot of people who need your help,” she tells him.

A lobbyist from Arizona University comes by to update Carusone and two other aides. They talk about funding, visits to campus and programs to help veterans adjust to academic life.

Meanwhile, the air hums with the tap-tapping of fingers on keyboards, ringing phones and staffers’ chatter.

Even though the Giffords operation looks like a typical Congressional office, some of the day’s business is dictated by the shootings. Carusone and Legislative Director Peter Ambler huddle in advance of a phone call that Carusone makes to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The Giffords aides are trying to get space in the Capitol Visitor Center named after Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’ director of community outreach who was killed by the same gunman who wounded the Congresswoman. The Senate staffer on the phone isn’t optimistic. Naming rights are a touchy subject, he says.

Carusone hangs up, a look of chagrin passing over her face as she turns to other business.

“Whatever.”

Keeping Notes

Another new job for the Giffords staffers is compiling detailed records of what’s happening in Congress, in the district and in the office. They write up comprehensive weekly reports on the bills that have passed, the major events of the week and the media stories driving the news.

Those will ultimately wind up in binders that Giffords can use to catch up on what she missed, Carusone says. “I think a lot about what we can do to document this for her,” she says.

And two interns from the University of Maryland’s graduate library studies program have joined the office to collect and catalogue the more than 20,000 well-wishing cards, letters and e-mails that have flooded the office.

Carusone says she speaks to Giffords during regular visits to the Houston hospital about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., but she keeps her conversation general. “I told her that there’s talk about a government shutdown,” she says. “We don’t go into as much detail as we would have in a normal situation.”

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