Who was Gabe Zimmerman?
At an emotional event Tuesday dedicating a Capitol Visitor Center meeting room to the slain staffer, the most powerful people in Congress struggled to find just the right words.
He was the “constituent whisperer” who could make everybody get along. He was “Prince Charming” because he was always there when someone needed him. He said he “wanted to change the world, one constituent at a time.”
He was loved by his family, friends and colleagues for his commitment to public service and his passion for his work.
“What would Gabe do?” was a common refrain around the office. He also could fix a computer. When he was young, when asked to name one of the things he feared most in life, he said “weapons.”
Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman was the community outreach director for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. On Jan. 8, 2011, he was killed by a gunman who opened fire on a constituent event in Casas Adobes, just outside Tucson, which he had organized. Five others were killed and 12 were injured.
And on Tuesday, more than two years later and just 24 hours after another act of unthinkable horror — the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon — members and friends of the congressional community gathered to honor Zimmerman’s life and service with the formal dedication of a CVC meeting room in his honor.
The event was marked by an uncommon outpouring of raw emotion from members of Congress, who typically speak in measured tones and talking points.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Ron Barber of Arizona all offered remarks and did not attempt to hold back tears as they sought to reconcile the tragedy of Zimmerman’s death with the inspirational details of his life. Barber, who was Giffords’ district director at the time of the shooting, was shot and injured at the event.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who lost his wife and young daughter in a car accident in 1972, also spoke through tears and at some points his voice barely rose above a whisper. Many times he directed his comments to Zimmerman’s parents, with whom he must have felt a strong connection.
“No parent should have a child predeceased . . . taken by a violent act,” Biden told them. “In my case it was a baby; in your case it was a grown man, but it doesn’t matter.”
Wasserman Schultz, a close friend of Giffords’, described Zimmerman as “a loyal, determined and talented public servant, someone who, as a true missionary of our representative democracy, unknowingly made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.”
Giffords, who sustained a near-fatal shot to the head and resigned from Congress last year to focus on her recovery, took her turn at the podium alongside her husband, Mark Kelly. Kelly delivered the remarks on behalf of his wife, who still has trouble speaking.
“Gabe was trained in social work,” Kelly said. Giffords, resolutely, echoed, “social work.”
“His whole mission in life was to take care of other people, to enhance their well-being,” Kelly said. “As the Social Workers Code of Ethics puts it, to ‘elevate service to others above self-interest.’”
Those who knew Zimmerman well said he would never boast about his accomplishments and that he made his contributions largely behind the scenes. And so the speakers at Tuesday’s event, again and again, echoed a similar refrain: that Zimmerman’s legacy spoke to all congressional staffers who put their country first and that the Zimmerman Meeting Room was in honor of every congressional aide who embodied Zimmerman’s spirit.
“Hopefully in this meeting room we will be meeting the standards of Gabe Zimmerman,” Pelosi said. “We will be meeting the ideals his mother talked about. He will constantly be an inspiration to us. That’s what we’ll tell people when they say, ‘Tell me about Gabe Zimmerman.’”
“I didn’t know Gabe. I just know ‘Gabes’ up here,” Biden said.
“When people say, ‘Who’s Gabe?’” he said, looking out across the room crowded with staffers, “they’re going to tell them about you.”