Note: This column was written before Gabby announced her decision to step down.

“So what do you think of Gabby Giffords so far?” Hank asked me.

It was the summer of 2006, six months after Giffords began her first term in Congress and more than three years before the horrific shootings of Jan. 8, 2011. Hank is a Republican, an economic, but not a social conservative, smart and knowledgeable. He likes a good, heated discussion as much as I do, so we find ourselves battling amiably now and then.

I told Hank I was less than completely pleased with Gabby. Though she was definitely a Democrat and voted with her party on most issues, she went the wrong way, by my lights, on too many votes.

“She’s a bit too moderate for my tastes,” I said.

Hank’s face broke into a wide “Gotcha!” grin. “And that’s why we both voted for her,” he said cheerfully.

Gabby didn’t change as I observed her during her first and second terms. She remained a moderate Democrat. But I found myself warming to her style. When she sided with Republicans, even though I disagreed with her position, I could see she had plausible reasons for her votes. And she was a strong advocate for issues important to me like alternative energy and health care.

Gabby is a savvy politician. I’m sure she’s cast some votes with an eye to re-election in her Republican-leaning Congressional District. But she doesn’t come off as one of those so-called moderates who change their views and their votes with the prevailing political winds, betraying whatever ideals they might have to play it safe. I always sensed genuine conviction in her choices.

I have never been prouder of Gabby than when I sat in a crowded high school auditorium during her health care town hall in the summer of 2009. Faced with gale-force hooting and hollering from opponents who jumped to their feet and screamed whenever she spoke positively about Obama, health care or anything to the left of Tea Party dogma, Gabby courageously stood her ground, head high, shoulders back, answering the shouts firmly but politely. She didn’t waver, didn’t move an inch from her principles to try and placate the hostile mob.

A friend, John Schwarz, who is a professor emeritus in political science at UA, likes to use the term “Principled Center” to describe centrist politicians who take stands based on their personal principles and on the principles the country’s Founders laid out in the Constitution and in their own writings. Unfortunately, we have too few national leaders who occupy that Principled Center. People who are “centrist” because of their beliefs, not out of political expediency. I would name Gabby as one of the few currently in office.

I’m sure some readers will argue with my depiction of Gabby as a centrist, but that’s only because our idea of the political center has been distorted by the Republican Party’s lurch to the right. Today’s Republicans have crammed themselves inside a tiny ultra-conservative tent, where the slightest deviation from Tea Party-dictated dogma is condemned as socialist/liberal heresy. Their secular saint, Ronald Reagan, would be branded a traitor to the conservative cause today if he stuck to the positions he took and the policies he enacted when he was President.

True, when you split the difference between the far right Republican Party and the middle left Democratic Party, you come up with a “center” skewed to the right. But when you poll the American people, you find the center is much closer to the views of someone like Representative Giffords.

I was deeply saddened when Gabby announced she is stepping down from her congressional seat, though part of me hoped she would make that choice for the sake of her continued health and recovery. I am inspired by her head high, shoulders back courage as she travels the long, difficult road, which, I feel sure, will lead to her continuing improvement. And I am heartened by the knowledge Gabby will walk her path the only way she knows: her way. She is the same determined, independent-minded Gabby today she has always been.

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