The Skinny


Ron Barber, the district director for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, walked into the Monday, Aug. 29, meeting of the Democrats of Greater Tucson this week to a big round of applause.

While he was using a cane—Barber is still recovering from nerve damage after taking a bullet in his upper left thigh during the Jan. 8 shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Giffords—he was able to clamber onto the stage to address the crowd of Democratic activists at their weekly luncheon.

Barber said that Giffords, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, is making progress in her recovery in Houston, where she is living with her husband, retiring NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

"She is doing so well," said Barber, who reported that Giffords is doing three hours of physical therapy at Houston's TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in the morning, and another three hours of speech therapy in the afternoon at home five days a week.

"It's very tiring, but she's determined," he said. "And if any of you know her, you know that determination is one of her most-important characteristics."

Barber told the crowd that he remains optimistic that Giffords will be able to return to work, saying that she understands what is said to her, even though she struggles to speak.

"For those of you who know about rehabilitation, if your cognition is intact, the rehab becomes much more feasible for success, and that's certainly the case for speech therapy," he said.

But Barber stopped short of saying Giffords would be able to seek re-election.

"As far as a decision to run or not run, I think we'll know more about that later in the year or early next year at the latest," he said. "The congresswoman will make that decision when the time is right. She'll make it based on her own sense of her ability to serve well. She will not, I don't think, do anything unless she can do it extraordinarily well. But we won't see a decision for awhile."

Last month, state Sen. Frank Antenori became the first Republican to announce that he would explore whether to seek the congressional seat that Giffords now holds, although Antenori said he would be unlikely to run if Giffords recovered enough to seek re-election.

Antenori also said he would wait until the state's Independent Redistricting Commission finished drawing the boundaries before making a final decision.

Barber said Giffords has one other big goal: "She wants to be in Tucson. That's not anything against Houston, but she's a Tucson woman, and she wants to be here. ... She misses Tucson terribly: the mountains, the people, the places we all love."

While Giffords continues her rehabilitation, Barber said her staff in Tucson continues to handle constituent service while the Washington, D.C., staff is working with other members of Congress to pursue issues that are important to Giffords.

Barber returned to his job as district director in July, but he's keeping his schedule to just four hours per day on doctor's orders. His left leg remains numb below the knee, and too much activity causes his foot to swell and sometimes throb with pain.

He said that staffer Gabe Zimmerman, who was killed in the Jan. 8 shooting, is still missed at the office.

"There is a big hole in the office and in our hearts because of the absence of Gabe," Barber said. "He was an incredible young man, on so many levels."

Barber also talked about his work with the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, a nonprofit effort he launched in the wake of the shooting.

He said the organization was moving forward with plans to introduce anti-bullying programs at several Tucson Unified School District schools this year, as well as at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind.

He said the nonprofit would also be developing a public-awareness campaign focused on mental illness.

"I really believe that too few people know what mental illness is about," Barber says. "They don't know what the symptoms look like, and they don't even know how to get treatment."

He's hoping to do a series of public-service announcements featuring prominent Tucsonans discussing the problems that they or someone in their families have faced with mental illness in an effort to reduce the stigma.

"It's a tragedy, really, to think about how there are probably thousands of people in our community and our state and across the country who have a serious mental-health issue and yet are ashamed or afraid to essentially come out about it or talk about it and get help," he said. "This is particularly true for a lot of our veterans who come out of what is, frankly, a pretty macho culture ... and admitting that you have PTSD is not something that you want to do, especially since getting an evaluation for it on discharge will delay you getting home to your family."

Barber said he might tape one of the segments himself.

"I'm one of the first to say that I have post-traumatic stress disorder," Barber says. "I have a diagnosis. I'm not ashamed of it. It happened because of the circumstances. I'm not alone. Others who were there that day must have that diagnosis. And by saying it in public, I want to make sure that people know it's nothing to be ashamed of."

His third goal is reaching out to members of the faith community to get involved in calling for civility in the political realm. He also wants to ask candidates to take a "civility commitment" when they run for office.

"I have a few people in mind that I'd like to get it in front of," he said, drawing laughs from the audience.

"People say about this whole idea of civility, that it's nonsense, that politics is a contact sport. It's always been rough-and-tumble, and people are always going to be jabbing at one another," he said. "That's true, but it's a question of how they do it. This is not about not having robust debate. ... It's about how you approach it. If you demonize your opponent, or tell lies about them, that's not civility."

Barber said the fund is also involved in early talks about some kind of permanent memorial for the victims of Jan. 8. He said it's vital to include the loved ones of those who lost their lives that day.

"It can't just be about what happened that day, which is obviously important to memorialize," Barber said. "It has to be about what happened afterward, because we have to make sure it's a positive remembrance of how our community responded and how we should continue to respond."

Responding to a question from the audience, Barber said he was not angry with Jared Lee Loughner, who is facing 49 federal counts in connection with the shooting rampage.

"I should be angry that other people were killed, and I'm certainly very sorrowful about that," Barber said. "But I can't muster anger about a man who obviously has very serious mental-health issues."

Loughner remains locked up at a federal psychiatric facility in Missouri while doctors attempt to restore his competency so he can face trial in Tucson. Last week, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ruled that prison officials can continue to give Loughner forced medication to prevent him from injuring himself.

When he was off the medication, Loughner, who has exhibited signs of severe schizophrenia, was pacing in his cell and staying awake for as many as 50 hours in a row. He was also refusing to eat, according to press reports of last week's court hearing.

Burns also denied a defense request that Loughner's psychiatric sessions be videotaped, after a prison psychiatrist said the taping might disrupt his treatment.

Loughner's attorneys are appealing Burns' ruling on the forced medication.

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