Congressional Candidate Ron Barber: "I'm Really Concerned, As Most People Are, About What's Going On in Washington"

Ron Barber and Gabrielle Giffords met with rancher Warner Glenn shortly before Giffords resigned from Congress
  • JD Fitzgerald
  • Ron Barber and Gabrielle Giffords met with rancher Warner Glenn shortly before Giffords resigned from Congress

Ron Barber made it official this morning: He’s going to run as a Democrat in the June 12 special election to complete the term of Gabrielle Giffords in Southern Arizona's Congressional District 8.

"It took me a little while to wrap my head around the idea, but now that I have, I'm going full bore,” says Barber, who has served as district director for Giffords’ office since she was first elected in 2006.

Barber said Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, asked him to get into the race. Earlier today, Mark Kelly posted a fundraising appeal on his Facebook page to help Barber build a campaign warchest.

Barber was shot twice on Jan. 8, once in the face and once in the upper thigh. Doctors nearly had to amputate his left leg, which remains numb below the knee because of nerve damage. He now walks with a cane and has to wear a brace to support his foot.

But he said he wouldn’t let his physical problems slow him down.

"I've checked myself both physically and mentally and I'm ready to get into this thing 100 percent with family support," Barber said. "I'm ready to do it."

Barber says there are a number of reason why he got into the race.

"I'm really concerned—as most people are—about what's going on Washington, with all the name-calling and bickering and gridlock," Barber said. "I've done what I can over the last year to promote the idea of civility and respect in political discourse and certainly one of the things I hope I can do in both running and hopefully being elected and going to Washington, is to bring both that tone and that attitude to what we're trying to do."

Barber said that if elected, he would be able to "prevent any break to the continuity" of the work being done by the current Congressional District 8 staff. He wants to continue the office's work on foreclosure cases, assist seniors with their government benefits and assist veterans returning from Iraq and, in the future, Afghanistan.

"I want to continue to help those people as we've helped them over the last five years," Barber said. "We have to work very hard so that veterans get a fair shake, both in terms of medical services and getting back into the work force."

Barber returned to work six months after the shooting, although his doctors insisted he limit his schedule to four hours a day.

In the wake of the shooting, he also founded the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, which is designed to combat bullying in schools, support programs for the mentally ill and encourage civility in politics.

He’s thrown several rock ’n’ roll concerts to support the fund, including a star-studded event headlined by Jackson Browne and Alice Cooper at the Tucson Convention Center last March and a Ben Folds concert at the Fox Theatre last month.

Barber spent most of his career heading up the state’s Southern Arizona Department of Developmental Disabilities—a job he quit in order to help Giffords get elected.

Barber's entry into the race will most likely clear the Democratic field in the special election, with potential candidates instead setting their sights on the regular election for the new Congressional District 2 later this year.

Barber said he hadn't yet decided whether he'd be running for the new Congressional District 2 seat.

"I think it's kind of presumptuous to get out ahead of myself," Barber said. "I've really got to be smart and focus on what's immediately in front of me and that's what I'm going to do. The decision on whether to run for CD2 will come in time, but not now."

Meanwhile, five Republicans are now set to battle it out in the April 17 GOP primary: 2010 GOP nominee Jesse Kelly; state Sen. Frank Antenori; businessman and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton; former A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter pilot Martha McSally; and political newcomer John Lervold.

Here’s more on Barber, from a TW story last March:

"I've never aspired to public office, but I've always wanted to serve in some capacity and give to the community, which is just what I've done," Barber says.

Barber spent most of his 30-plus-year career with the state heading up the Southern Arizona branch of the state Division of Developmental Disabilities. Although he served for a few years as acting head of the entire division in the late 1980s, he was happy to relinquish control and return to Southern Arizona.

"I couldn't wait to get back to the regional directorship, where I could talk to a family that had a child with disabilities, or meet with a group of people with disabilities. Or I could influence or help set up a new program," he says. "For me, that's where it's at."

He's proud that during his tenure, the state closed down homes for the mentally challenged.

"I believed we had to get people out of institutions in a proper way, with the level of coverage and support they needed to be successful in the community," Barber says.

He quit the job in early 2006 to help Giffords win the Congressional District 8 seat, and when she asked him to run the district office, he accepted the job. He remembers that she told him she wanted to deliver the best constituent service in the country.

"That was her priority," says Barber, who helped build a staff of people who had experience in social work.

Before he can get back to his job, Barber has a lot of healing to do. He can control the pain in his leg through medication, but walking remains a struggle. He can only hope that his nerves regenerate; the doctors tell him it's a slow process, so he may have to wait a year or more before he knows how much feeling he'll recover.

"There is no treatment for it," he says. "You just have to wait and see."

Then there's the emotional toll. In the weeks after he got out of the hospital, he had a lot of trouble sleeping.

"I was playing the tape over and over again in my head," he says. "Nothing in my whole life even remotely prepared me for something like this. It was just horrific. And I know I'll be dealing with it forever."

Barber remembers standing a few feet from Giffords and talking to federal Judge John Roll when the gunman rushed up to Giffords and shot her in the head before turning the gun on him.

He didn't realize he'd taken bullets to the face and groin until he saw he was lying in a puddle of his own blood. Gabe Zimmerman, the District 8 office's "constituent whisperer" who had worked with Barber since the 2006 campaign, was shot dead next to him.

Even as he struggled to remain conscious after members of the crowd subdued Jared Lee Loughner, 22, Barber was thinking of Giffords. He ordered her intern, Daniel Hernandez, to stay with the congresswoman, whose life may have been saved by Hernandez's first-aid efforts.

"I remember saying to him, 'Daniel, I'm fine. Go to Gabby. Take care of Gabby,'" he says.

Through the haze, he tried to find his missing Blackberry so he could begin making phone calls. A bystander, Anna Ballis, was applying pressure to Barber's mangled leg; her husband eventually had to force Barber to lie back until paramedics arrived and airlifted him to University Medical Center.

Barber has learned a lot about anatomy from his doctors. They tell him the shot that tore through his cheek and neck missed the carotid artery by 2 millimeters. The other bullet blew out the femoral vein but only nicked the femoral artery. Trauma surgeon Peter Rhee's team managed to save his left leg from amputation by grafting veins from his right leg.

He's struggled through complications since leaving the hospital, including some worrisome swelling in his leg after he attended a January memorial service for Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent who was killed in the line of duty in December.

It's not in his nature to take it easy. Barber has felt the calling to public service since his days at Rincon High School, where he served on the student council after coming to the United States from England with his parents.

"Like most converts, I'm really enamored with the American system," he says.

As he came of age in the 1960s, he saw some of his heroes—John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—killed by assassins.

"It was like a shattering of dreams," Barber says.

But his optimism about America has not dimmed.

"In spite of everything that's happened in our country in the last two years and all the harsh rhetoric, I still believe you can get things done that are good," he says. "That's why I do what I do in public service, and that's why I work for Gabby."

He remembers talking with Giffords late one night at the end of a road trip about why they were here on the planet.

"She sort of summed it up by saying, 'I think we're here to care for each other,' and I really believe that," Barber says. "We stumble and make mistakes and don't get everything right, but I think that's our real purpose."