The Jan. 8 assassination attempt against U.S Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has left her office staff in disarray, without a leader and mourning the loss of one of its key players.
The accused gunman, Jared Loughner, 22, appears to have targeted the congresswoman at a Saturday public appearance and in his rampage shot and killed six people. Another 14 people, including two of Giffords’ staff members, were seriously injured.
Giffords’ community outreach director, Gabe Zimmerman, 30, was among those killed.
A fellow congressional employee described Zimmerman as a man with a passion for helping people, even before coming to work for Giffords.
C.J. Karamargin said Zimmerman handled the thousands of constituent requests that flow into the office every year.
Since 2006, the office opened 9,828 cases on behalf of constituents and successfully closed 8,960 of those, Karamargin said.
Many of those cases involved helping constituents navigate the maze of the federal bureaucracy. Other times the office has helped get long-deserving military recognition and honors.
In a case late in 2010, Giffords’ office was able to pull a home out of foreclosure for a Northwest family that had fallen on hard times after experiencing medical problems.
“This was all Gabe Zimmerman,” Karamargin said.
Zimmerman was a Tucson native. He had a sociology degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a master’s degree in social work from Arizona State University.
Karamargin said Zimmerman handled an incalculable number of requests from District 8 residents. Since Giffords was first elected in 2006, her office has been contacted more than 460,000 times, Karamargin said.
Zimmerman also was responsible for organizing events like the “Congress on Your Corner” meeting at the Safeway store at Ina and Oracle roads where he and others lost their lives.
Giffords has prided herself on the accessibility of her office to constituents, Karamargin said.
“Our whole reason for being here was helping people,” he said.
The congresswoman had held 20 similar events in the past, including three at the same Safeway store where she was shot.
The events were usually well received, with Giffords generally keeping her comments to a minimum and allowing those who attended to speak with her directly.
“People didn’t expect the fact that they could speak to the congresswoman one-on-one,” Karamargin said. “People were astounded that they could get so close to the congresswoman; sadly, no one expected a gunman would get so close.”
He described the congresswoman’s Tucson office as a family, all of whom were deeply committed to working with Giffords.
“Everyone of us considers it a privilege to work for Gabrielle Giffords,” Karamargin said. “It’s not just loyalty, but affection.”
Among the wounded were Giffords’ district office director Ron Barber and community outreach representative Pam Simon.
Karamargin said Simon was shot in chest but did not suffer any injuries to her vital organs. He said she was recovering and able to communicate with friends and family.
“(Pam) was joking to another staff member that I owe her some dark chocolate,” Karamargin said.
He said Barber was shot two times, once in the cheek and the other to his leg.
Giffords remains in the hospital in critical condition.