Lift off: Mark Kelly Launches Campaign for U.S. Senate in Tucson

Mark Kelly held his first event as a candidate for U.S. Senate over the weekend at Hotel Congress.
Mark Kelly held his first event as a candidate for U.S. Senate over the weekend at Hotel Congress.

Although he's never held public office before, Mark Kelly touts his experience as an astronaut and his life with former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as proof that he's worthy to replace Martha McSally in the U.S. Senate.

As the first Democrat to enter the race, Kelly kicked off his 2020 campaign, branded as a "Mission For Arizona," on the Hotel Congress patio last Saturday afternoon. He laid out his plans to achieve affordable healthcare for all, livable wages for the middle class, protections for the environment that address climate change and, of course, the signature issue that he and Giffords have been championing for years, preventing gun violence.

Their work on that issue came after the January 2011 mass shooting at Giffords' Congress on Your Corner meeting with constituents outside a northwest side Safeway. Giffords was shot in the head and narrowly survived, while six people were killed and 12 others were wounded in the attack. During his speech, Kelly told the crowd how that day changed his life, and how policy affected their ability to recover from a tragic and unexpected event.

"Gabby fought, and I knew that I had to fight too," Kelly said. "I had to fight for her, through her treatment, through her recovery, through her rehabilitation, and for a new life. I still think about how much more difficult that fight would have been if she did not have access to affordable health care."

After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six adults dead, Kelly and Giffords founded an organization now called Giffords to lobby for universal background checks and other gun safety measures. The Giffords Law Center tracks statistics related to gun violence and produces research on gun legislation and related solutions.

Describing his family history of public service, Kelly told the crowd that his relatives are police officers, military veterans and firefighters. He joined the Navy and flew in 39 combat missions during the First Gulf War, and was later stationed in Texas where he worked at NASA's Johnson Space Center as an astronaut. He became a NASA Space Shuttle pilot in 1996 and flew his first mission in 2001.

Kelly said seeing Earth from outer space, "a literal island in our solar system," was the most amazing thing he has ever seen.

"As an astronaut I'm often asked about the climate and our environment and how we are damaging this planet," he said. "My response often surprises people. 'Don't worry about the planet, the Earth is going to be just fine. You know what you need to worry about is us, all of us.' And make no mistake, we have no place else to go. It's immediately clear, looking at this planet and the blackness beyond that we are all in this together."

Kelly said it was time to take action on climate change.

"If we don't get our act together soon, Arizona is going to have more heat, more drought and less economic growth," he said.

Kelly said his work as an astronaut required collaboration and teamwork skills. He indicated that he'll work across party lines to find solutions to problems facing the country if elected.

"When you're aboard the space shuttle orbiting the Earth at 25 times the speed of sound and bad stuff starts to happen, you've got to work the problem as a team," he said. "We don't dismiss ideas based on the background of the person offering them."

Kelly promised he would not take corporate PAC contributions for his campaign, which raised more than a million dollars in contributions on the day he first announced his plan to run earlier this month.

Kelly still needs to prevail in next year's Democratic primary in order to face McSally, who narrowly lost the 2018 election for Sen. Jeff Flake's seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. McSally was appointed to the late Sen. John McCain's seat by Gov. Doug Ducey in December after Jon Kyl stepped down from his interim position. Because she was appointed to the seat, she will have to run in 2020 if she wants to keep it. The winner of the 2020 race will have to run again in 2022, which would have been the normal end of McCain's term.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is exploring the idea of running for Senate as well, has indicated that he will announce a final decision in the near future.