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Jesse Kelly has yet to answer for the anger and bile of his 2010 congressional campaign

The signs are all around town, in the same innocent baby-blue motif as they were two years ago. Jesse Kelly is again running for Congress to replace Gabrielle Giffords, whom he came close to unseating in 2010 in one of the nastiest races in recent local memory.

Kelly went after Giffords with an odd sense of vengeance, and his campaign painted her as a brainless puppet of Nancy Pelosi and the president. Violent images were part of his rhetoric. He helpfully compared Mexican border-crossers to Islamic terrorists and said government employees were "putrid" and had no love of their country. "Send a warrior to Congress" was his tagline.

He notoriously encouraged supporters to shoot an M16 with him to raise money for her defeat. He led Republicans in chants of "Gabby's gotta go!" during a Tea Party rally at Hi Corbett Field.

Kelly said this at a candidate forum, in reference to two previous campaigns in which the discussion had been respectful: "Gabrielle Giffords, your time's coming, because you've had patty-cake played with you twice. We play to win. We play to win on this campaign. ... We're coming."

I worked on that campaign for Gabrielle and will never forget the way she was personally vilified in the months leading up to the massacre—the way that it became acceptable to talk about her as though she was a traitor to her country and somebody less than human. Gabrielle had seen her office windows smashed several months before, and wondered out loud during the election if the partisan ugliness might persuade some nut to take a gun to one of her events and shoot her.

Whether the angry climate in Tucson pushed Jared Loughner to take a gun to the Safeway to try to kill her may be a question that is never settled to everyone's satisfaction. But it certainly would have been impossible for anyone in Tucson to have missed how Gabrielle—one of the more gentle and thoughtful people I've ever met—was portrayed by the Jesse Kelly campaign as the embodiment of the invasive, brutal federal government.

That was all a giant lie, of course, but Kelly has never once had to answer for his role in creating such an illusion in the name of gaining political power for himself. He is now standing again for election to high office, and I believe he has some explaining to do to the people of Southern Arizona. He has since retreated, without a word, from his position that Social Security should be privatized. But he should not be able to evade necessary questions about the events of two years ago in which he played a central role.

Voters need to ask him: Does he regret anything he said or did? How much control did he have over the tone of his campaign and the words of his supporters? Does he still think Gabrielle Giffords was a corrupt tool of the liberals?

Most important, if we put him in Congress, what's to stop him from making further distortions and character attacks against those who disagree with him?

There was a time when the Arizona Republican Party stood for building a better Arizona through creative partnerships with the federal government, such as hosting military bases, building federal dams and landing infrastructure projects that brought far more tax money into the state than we paid out.

The postwar booster establishment had its flaws and myopia, to be sure. But it generally put the loudmouths and the grandstanders on the sidelines in favor of building a cooperative political culture in which things got done instead of yelled about endlessly. Character assassination was generally off-limits, if for no other reason than it was simply bad for business.

Those genial days are now history, but there is no reason why they cannot serve as a model for how we ought to be talking to one another in the future. Arizona voters of all political persuasions would be paying tribute to that noble aspect of our state's heritage by asking Jesse Kelly, politely but firmly, for some answers about his behavior of two years ago.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote that history is a "struggle of memory against forgetting." That disgraceful election season of 2010 should not be forgotten so quickly—nor should its chief hot-spur be permitted to act like nothing happened. Conservatives are right to point out that actions have consequences; they do.

More by Tom Zoellner

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    Arizona and Tucson need to shoulder some of the blame for the Jan. 8 shootings
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