Daniel Hernandez had sworn off politics more than once on the day he found himself running into the gunfire aimed at his boss, Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, to help save her life.
But instead of chasing him away for good, he said, that experience in January 2011 put Hernandez, then a 20-year-old intern, on the path that ultimately led him to launch a campaign last month for Arizona’s open 2nd District seat.
“It cemented in me a desire to go into public service, and to stay in public service,” said Hernandez, now 31 and a member of the state House.
The 2011 shooting killed six people, including Giffords’ 30-year-old community outreach director, and gave Hernandez an early understanding of a grim reality that faces congressional candidates — and their staffs.
“It would be really easy to give up and say, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’” Hernandez said. “But then I’m always reminded that I’m doing this because ever since I was 5 years old, I wanted to help people. And the way to do that is by staying involved and trying to change the system.”
After a bout with a serious autoimmune condition called Graves’ disease when he was a teenager, Hernandez had planned to go to medical school. But he kept getting sidetracked by opportunities to work for political campaigns.
He was ready to quit after working for Hillary Clinton in 2008, but Giffords disarmed him with her warmth and made him think his future could be in Washington making copies and fetching coffee. Then he saw the anger directed at her during the 2010 midterm elections.
“Right after the health care vote … one of her opponents had had a fundraiser where they had an effigy of her that they shot at,” Hernandez said. “So it was a very toxic and very different kind of political environment.”
As election results came in and it wasn’t clear whether she had won the race, Giffords told him that the outcome didn’t matter as long as they continued to help people.
“I said, ‘OK, this is the kind of person that needs to be in Congress,’” he said. “Because even on the verge of losing her seat, here she is really talking about the importance of helping other people.”
The day of the shooting, Hernandez was just a week into his internship and running late. When he finally got to the right Safeway store, he was handed a clipboard and told to check in attendees as they arrived, making notes on any personal requests they had for the congresswoman. Those conversations would haunt him after some of those people died.
Afterward, when he was declared a “hero” for using his bare hands to stop Giffords’ bleeding, everyone wanted to know his story.
“I went from being the person who thought they were always behind the scenes and would never be in front of a camera to quickly doing 250 interviews in the course of three weeks, with every kind of outlet that you can think of talking about what had happened,” he said.
Hernandez went on to win a seat on his Tucson-area school board, surviving a recall attempt and serving as the board’s youngest president.
In 2017, he was elected to the state Legislature, where he has worked alongside state Rep. Randy Friese, Giffords’ trauma surgeon on the day of the shooting, on gun control measures. Friese is now running against Hernandez and state Sen. Kirsten Engel for the Democratic nomination for the Tucson-area seat Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick is giving up.
Along the way, Hernandez has slowly come to terms with the impact the shooting had on his career. He barely mentioned it during his 2011 school board campaign, but the shooting now plays a prominent role in his congressional campaign launch video. It has also given him a stoic view about the threats that he has too frequently received as a gay Latino man in public office.
“I’ve been getting death threats since I was 21,” Hernandez said. “Unfortunately, it’s become a part of political life. … That’s why, for me, really tackling some of these core issues like, why do we see a rise in anti-government sentiment around the United States, is so crucial and important.”