As the one-time district director for Tucson-area former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, it’s sort of back to business for Democrat Ron Barber. He rode the wave of national attention that came with winning the competitive special election June 12, but now it’s time for him again to tackle the casework, legislation and issues pertaining to Arizona’s 8th district.
It inarguably won’t be the same sense of normalcy as before January 2011, when the tragic shooting in a Tucson parking lot took six lives and seriously injured Barber and Giffords. The Congresswoman’s injuries eventually caused her to resign the seat in January 2012, setting up the special election this month.
Barber is expected to be sworn in as the newest Democrat in the 112th Congress today. He even gets to extend the celebration: He and his wife, Nancy, will mark their 45th wedding anniversary Wednesday.
Barber is familiar with the mundane, often ungrateful work that comes with constituent service and legislating and is well-versed in the needs of his southeast Arizona region. What he might not be as familiar with is the posturing, politicizing or public scrutiny that comes with being a Member of Congress.
With less than six months remaining in the calendar year, Barber should have about 13 weeks in Washington, D.C., during which he can become adjusted, and then work, in his new job.
He says that civility and bipartisanship will drive his work.
“I want to go to Congress to be as bipartisan as I possibly can be,” he said the day after winning the election. He will likely exhibit a low-key, workmanlike demeanor when it comes to legislating, and as a moderate, he won’t be a solid party-line vote for the Democrats.
Barber says he traces his political inspiration to two figures: President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He was born in the United Kingdom, but he was raised on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson by his mother and stepfather, whom he considers his father figure.
After college at the University of Arizona, most of Barber’s jobs — including working for Head Start and then the Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilities — had an element of public service. His longtime private-sector job was operating a toy store with his wife, who now acts as a postpartum doula.
“If you’re fortunate enough to have an education, even if you don’t, just to be alive and to live a life, one of the most important responsibilities that you can carry out is to serve your community,” he said. “For me, it’s been public service.”
He first was a volunteer for Giffords’ staff. After the 2008 election, he was hired as full-time district director. He has already worked with the same Arizona delegation Members’ offices with which he’ll now have to partner on a different level. Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, who is running for Arizona’s Senate seat, says his staff worked with Barber and Giffords’ staff on a number of occasions. Flake said he would prefer a fellow GOP Member in the district, but he twice repeated that Barber was a “good man.” “It’s great for that district to have a representative again,” Flake said.
Barber’s injuries from the shooting included gunshot wounds to the face and leg. While he was recovering, Barber started a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance civility and respect by tackling issues such as bullying in schools.
“My wife keeps saying to me, ‘when exactly are you going to retire?’” the 66-year-old said, laughing. “I said to her, ‘Well, I don’t know, maybe next time.’”
The only immediately visible trace of the gunshot wounds Barber sustained is a dimple on his cheek. He also said he recently stopped walking with a cane.
After Giffords announced she would resign from the House, she directly asked Barber to run for her seat. The 8th district is known for swing voters with independent tendencies, and any race there was destined to gather national attention. Combined with the emotional links of filling “Gabby’s seat” in Congress, the special election drew not only media coverage but money, as both parties tried to use it as barometer for the general elections in November. Iraq War veteran Jesse Kelly, who opposed Giffords in 2010, took the Republican nod.
More than $2 million was spent on the race, much in the form of television ads, by House campaign committees and outside politically aligned groups combined. Early voting played a large role in the race; Giffords came out toward the end of campaigning to support Barber.
Barber won 52 percent to Kelly’s 45 percent. He will have to run for re-election to the 113th Congress in a redrawn and renumbered district that is slightly more favorable to Democrats. While he now represents the 8th district, the district’s new number will be the 2nd.
Barber said he would like a seat on the Armed Services Committee; military needs, including Fort Huachuca and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, drive his district’s economy.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office did not have information on his committee placement, but one of Giffords’ former committees, Science, Space and Technology, has a vacancy. Three other committees — Homeland Security, Natural Resources and Foreign Affairs — also have Democratic vacancies.
Barber is already knee-deep into his legislative plans. To improve the security of the U.S. border with Mexico, he wants to look at drug cartels using prepaid money cards to bring funds to Mexico and the ways that activity can be tracked and blocked. He wants manpower and the use of more high-tech devices, including unmanned aerial vehicles. He also wants to improve post-traumatic treatments for veterans.
As the lines are currently drawn, 18 percent of the district’s population is older than 65, and entitlement issues are key. Barber’s position during the campaign was that he would “responsibly adjust” Medicare and Medicaid, and he opposed the fiscal 2013 GOP budget proposal.
Barber said he is ready to get started, and he has already begun his apartment search in D.C, pulled together Arizona memorabilia for his office and located a Bible he and his wife share for the swearing-in.
“My energy level has been so high since I started this election,” he said. “I feel very youthful, even though I have a few gray hairs. I’m really ready to do this.”