In his book “Built to Last,” author Jim Collins stresses that successful organizations are built by leaders who establish a foundation that is strong enough to survive even without them.
As Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords continues to recover from the Jan. 8 assassination attempt during which she was shot at point-blank range in the head, her staff at offices in Tucson, Sierra Vista and Washington, D.C., push forward with business as usual.
With the six-month anniversary of the Jan. 8 tragedy just days away, Giffords continues to recover in Houston at the home owned by her husband, Mark Kelly.
C.J. Karamargin, Giffords’ director of communications, said the congresswoman has always been clear on her priorities. Sharing those directives has made it possible for staff members to continue working to meet them until she returns.
“It is hard to separate the emotion,” Karamargin said. “It’s hard because I’ve considered myself lucky to work with someone like Gabby. We decided on Jan. 10, Monday morning, to open the office as usual because this is the job Gabby asked us to do. It’s what needs to be done. Me personally, I always keep that in mind.”
As Karamargin showed off the new office on Fort Lowell on June 23, there were no signs of a slow down for Giffords’ staff.
As he began the tour, the first two people introduced were members of her constituent services staff who were rushing to the conference room to discuss the state’s foreclosure situation with representatives from the offices of senators John McCain and Jon Kyle.
Foreclosures have been a top priority for Giffords since the recession hit in 2008, Karamargin said.
With Giffords’ office currently maintaining about 1,000 constituent cases, it is estimated that one in five involve people asking for help to avoid foreclosure.
“Congresswoman Giffords understands that a congressional office is a resource. We always approach our jobs with that in mind. When it comes to foreclosures we get people in here who have nowhere else to turn,” Karamargin noted.
Oftentimes residents have talked to the banks, the lenders and filled out the necessary paperwork, and yet the foreclosure continues to go forward. In these cases, Karamargin said there is something the congressional office can do to intervene.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as our office making a simple phone call on their behalf and explaining that the proper paperwork has been filed but maybe misplaced,” he said. “There are cases where we have prevented homes from going up on the auction block. We’ve had clear success here, and the goal is to make sure we keep people in their homes.”
Giffords’ office also handles a high volume of cases involving veterans.
Karamargin said they had been working with one veteran for more than a year before he received the disability benefits to which he was entitled. He recently received $50,000 in back pay.
“Military issues have always been important to the congresswoman,” said Karamargin. “District 8 has the ninth largest group of veterans in the United States.”
Karamargin said there is no set timeline on how quickly Giffords will recover. Doctors have estimated it could take a year to really see how far she will progress and what will happen.
However, her continued improvements have served as inspiration to not only the world, but also to those who know her best. Karamargin said she remains in their thoughts no matter what they are doing.
Almost every office or cubicle at Giffords’ office displays the New York Post cover “Gabulous,” which came out on June 13, featuring a smiling portrait of the congresswoman – one of the first two photos released since the shooting.
Besides veterans and foreclosures, Karamargin said they keep Giffords’ priorities in other areas at the top of the list. From solar energy and border security to science and technology, the congresswoman’s leadership remains a driving force that enables her office to move forward.
On June 17, Giffords made her first trip to Tucson since transferring to Houston for rehabilitation in January. One stop that weekend was to visit the new offices at 3945 E. Fort Lowell.
“She noticed right away that some plants needed watering,” he said. “That’s something she always did before Jan. 8. It just affirmed for us what we all believe, and that’s that Gabby is on her way back. Here is someone who less than six months ago was shot at point-blank range, and had the most sensitive part of her the body injured, and yet when she came here she climbed 18 steps on her own, and noticed some plants need water. I don’t think anyone could have projected where we would be today.”
Members of staff commented her visit to the office was just as good for their morale as it was for Giffords.
“It was uplifting to see her back here,” staffer John Rorke said. “It was therapeutic for us.”
While Karamargin talks about conducting business as usual, the staff has also transitioned to take on the added duties brought on by the Jan. 8 shooting.
The media requests have increased tremendously. From CNN, People Magazine and Oprah to international news stations, the communications director said the requests for interviews and information on her status and the staff never stops.
The gifts, well wishes and packages also have increased, requiring some staff to catalogue each gift and send thank-you notes.
Karamargin said Giffords was big on writing thank-you notes, and the staff recognizes the importance of maintaining that level of standard.
Intern Mary Myles takes the cards and gifts, looks at who sent them, works to find an address, and sends the card or acknowledgement.
“I love doing this,” she said. “I love just reading some of them. This is my favorite part.”
Even six months after the shooting, the gifts and well wishes continue to pour in. During The Explorer’s visit on June 23, the staff had yet to go through two boxes of gifts sent earlier in the month.
Influence in Washington
While her staff carries on day-to-day operations, what remains missing in the congresswoman’s third term in office is her presence on committees and in voting.
Her influence, however, has kept her priorities in the forefront in Washington.
Giffords’ Chief of Staff Pia Caruson manages most of the business aspects of the congresswoman’s office. Her relationship with Congress members means laws are moving forward on her behalf.
On June 8, Colorado Senator Mark Udall reintroduced landmark legislation to overhaul energy consumption by the Department of Defense.
Udall teamed up with Giffords last year to introduce the bill.
“This bill will help us shore up one of the military’s most serious vulnerabilities: its dependence on fossil fuel,” Udall said. “This is an issue that is near and dear to Gabby’s heart. Together we’re going to get it passed in Congress.”
Congressmen from Texas and Pennsylvania also pushed forward legislation suggested by Giffords after Douglas rancher Robert Krentz was killed near the Arizona/Mexico border.
The U.S. House of Representatives has given overwhelming approval to a bipartisan amendment to improve communications along the border.
The House voted 327 to 93 to pass an amendment that would transfer $10 million within the Department of Homeland Security to fund the public-private partnerships that improve mobile communications near the border. The funding could be used for erecting cell phone towers or otherwise improving mobile communications in other ways.
“Border security is an essential component of national security, so it is of paramount concern to Congresswoman Giffords,” said Carusone. “Since we have not yet secured our border in remote areas, we must find solutions to help residents protect themselves from dangerous individuals and alert the Border Patrol to threats. This amendment will accomplish that.”
Karamargin said while Giffords is not physically present to vote, her ability to create partnerships with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers will allow her influence to continue as she continues to recover.
A decision on whether or not Giffords will remain in office is not required until May of 2012.