When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head nearly a year ago, few thought she would survive. But with the help of two unwavering friends who never stopped believing in her, she did. Here, an inspiring story of three women who are rewriting Washington's boys'-club rules.
By Sheila Weller
Nov. 2011 issue
On a Saturday afternoon last January, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was pulling out of her Florida driveway, taking her 7-year-old daughter, Shelby, on an hour-long drive to a soccer tournament. Her BlackBerry buzzed, and as she glanced down, the message from one of her staffers made her throw on the brakes: "Gabby Giffords shot???"
Debbie, the petite, blond dynamo who would soon become chair of the Democratic National Committee (in part due to "her ability to deal with adversity," as Vice President Biden has put it), isn't easily thrown by crisis. But this was different. "It was like someone gave me a hard kick in the stomach," she recalls. Months later, her voice still quivers with emotion.
The rest of the world was hearing the shocking news, too. A young man, Jared Lee Loughner, had inexplicably walked up to Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the 40-year-old Arizona Congresswoman, at a Tucson, AZ, shopping center and shot her in the head. Then Loughner had killed six others, including Gabby's outreach director, 30-year-old Gabriel Zimmerman, and Christina-Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl born on September 11, 2001.
Debbie struggled to keep her eyes on the road. "I had my iPad on the passenger seat; I was desperately Googling as I was driving; I was crying," she says, remembering how she kept hitting the Refresh button on Google News, searching for more details about the shooting and Gabby's status. In the backseat, Shelby kept asking, "What's the matter, Mommy?" Determined to shield her daughter from the news until she knew more, "I kept the radio low the whole time," Debbie recalls. "She knows Gabby — our families are close!"
Then came reports that Gabby had died. Debbie began to weep openly, unable to hide her emotions anymore. "I was crying and driving, trying to hold it together," she says. At home, her husband, Steve, worried not only about their friends — he, too, was close to Gabby and her husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark E. Kelly — but also that his wife was so distraught that it was dangerous for her to be behind the wheel. He kept calling her cell phone. "Debbie, turn around!" he urged. "You're in no condition to drive."
At the very same moment, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was sitting down with her husband, Jonathan, for lunch. The New York Senator, close to both Debbie and Gabby, was the third member of one of Washington's most powerful friendships. Just the week before, the Gillibrands had been at Matchbox, a popular Washington, DC, restaurant, with Gabby and Mark for pizza and beer. In a modern reversal of traditional roles, it had been the women who talked shop during the entire meal — about Gabby's bruising reelection in politically polarized southern Arizona, where her opponent had posed with a machine gun in his campaign posters. "[We discussed] how aggressive and grueling it had been," Kirsten remembers, "how you have to rise above the challenges and stand up for what you care about, and present a vision for your state and your district."
Faith was another subject that came up that evening. Gabby and her husband had just returned from a long-awaited family trip to Rome, where they had gone to the Vatican. "It was such a beautiful, rewarding spiritual moment for them," Kirsten says, remembering how the couple's happiness that evening was almost infectious. When she heard the news of the shooting, "I just sat there, crying," she says in a voice as high and fast as Debbie's is deep and slow. "My husband — all he did was hold me. We'd just seen Gabby! It was so raw and so real." But when the false reports came in that Gabby had not survived, the Senator's inner pit bull came out. She was not about to mourn her friend on the basis of Internet rumors. "I just would not believe Gabby was dead," she says, displaying the steely determination that saw her through a media mud fight after her appointment to the Senate. "I kept saying to my husband, 'We don't know for sure.' " When she talked with colleagues during that fraught time, Kirsten remembers, they kept reassuring each other: "She is going to be OK. She is going to be OK."
Back in Florida, Debbie Wasserman Schultz got her daughter safely to the soccer tournament, then "paced around, fielding call after call." She finally heard the incredibly good news: Gabby was alive after all.
For many, Gabby Giffords has become a symbol of miracles and hope in a fractious Washington whose troubles have left both the lawmakers and their constituents profoundly dispirited. When she appeared on the House floor during the August 1 vote to raise the debt ceiling, "the most grizzled, hardened [Representatives'] hearts...they all melted," Debbie has observed. Indeed, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi speaks for the entire Congress, regardless of party, when she says, "There isn't a name that stirs more love, more admiration, or more respect than the name of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.... [Her] courage and spirit are an inspiration to the entire country."
Gabby had always been rich in friendship, but the closeness she shares with Kirsten and Debbie has been powerful both personally and politically. Early in their careers, they met, bonded, and became one another's champions, helping one another through crises ranging from minor to major to unimaginable. All young by Washington standards (Gabby is 41, Kirsten is 44, and Debbie is 45), the three represent a significant part of the roughly 20% of the Congressional voice that is female — of 535 Senators and Representatives, only 93 are women and the average age is 53. The reasons behind the trio's friendship are the reasons why women are so valuable in Congress, and the clout that they embody is changing the way business is done on Capitol Hill. They have committed not only to meaningful alliances with Republican Congresswomen, but also to a concerted effort to get more women involved in politics and elected at every level of government. In a 2008 article, the New York Timesreferred to Kirsten and Gabby as part of a new crop of young Democratic "dragon slayers" who'd won hard-fought races in Republican districts or swing states, a reminder that politics is no place for princesses. The women who enter the battlefield that is Capitol Hill have to be warriors, and courage — mixed with a decidedly female bent toward consensus — is at the heart of not only this friendship, but also a new generation of women leaders, Republican and Democratic, that is emerging across the country.
Traditionally, it's been older women, who have finished raising children — Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Marge Roukema, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton — who have made their mark in Congress. And, indeed, they paved the way for younger women like Debbie and Kirsten to run for office, despite the challenges. There's an element of necessity — and urgency — in their running, say their female peers who watch politics closely. "We love Dianne Feinstein, but she's 78," says Dee Dee Myers, an author who, at 31, was the first female White House press secretary. Political commentator and Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph.D., adds, "America needs women between 25 and 40 in office because they are the ones who know in their belly the importance and the complexity of balancing work and family, which is what much of American life is all about."
The Real Girlfriends of Capitol Hill
Debbie and Gabby got to know each other in 2005, when both were chosen to be leadership fellows by the Aspen Institute, a prestigious think tank whose board includes such political and business heavyweights as Madeleine Albright, Leonard Lauder, and Condoleezza Rice. Debbie, already in Congress, was soon asked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to colead the Red to Blue Program, recruiting promising Democratic candidates for office in Republican districts. They hit it off immediately. "We were both women who had been elected to our state legislatures early" — Debbie at 26, Gabby at 30 — "[and] it was very rare to meet someone like that — so similar to me, who had come to believe that public service was so important," Debbie recalls. "We were kindred spirits." In meeting after meeting, "we would sit together and kibitz — like girlfriends."
During one of the Institute's forums, in New Orleans, Debbie brought husband Steve and Gabby brought Mark, who was then her boyfriend. The two discovered that the two men "are the same size, and they both have blue eyes and bald heads!" Debbie laughs. "It was kind of remarkable that we were both attracted to the same type of guy." While listening to the city's jazz and sipping its famous Hurricane cocktails, Debbie remembers, "Mark and Steve really hit it off." Meanwhile, she was finding Gabby "so impressive and so accomplished, I knew she'd make a very promising Congressional candidate." Gabby, then 35, decided to accept Debbie's recruitment and run for the House of Representatives; Debbie flew to Arizona and stumped on the campaign trail for her.
Meanwhile, Debbie and Kirsten were getting to know each other via long phone conversations, because Kirsten was also considering a national run and had a lot of questions. Kirsten, then a lawyer from upstate New York, had a toddler and wanted to have another baby. Debbie had twins, then 5 years old, and was pregnant when she announced her run for Congress in 2004. She'd won that race and entered the House as the mother of a newborn. Kirsten was able to ask the kinds of questions she couldn't ask a Congressman: "How did you juggle a newborn, an election, your husband, and your child — with the two homes a Congress member needs to keep?" Debbie explained that what worked for her and Steve was for the kids to stay in Florida with their dad (with her parents and some of Steve's family nearby), with Debbie commuting home on weekends. Debbie says, "This way, I was still able to go to Jake's baseball games and be Rebecca's Girl Scout troop leader." During these talks, Kirsten recalls, "Debbie was very inspiring. She said, to both Gabby and me, 'Not only does your voice matter, but, as women, you can weigh in in ways that can help move an issue. Because we're women — because we're mothers — we have a different perspective, a different lens. We're able to bring people together, to consensus-build.' "
The admiration between the women was mutual. "Kirsten was a ball of fire!" Debbie says. "She was so similar to me — neither of us has ever done anything halfway. Sometimes, when two women are so similar, it's not a good thing, but in our case we rooted for each other from the beginning."
Debbie, a New York State native, had discovered her calling when she attended the University of Florida, falling in love with Florida and politics. At 26, she became the state's youngest-ever female Representative. Kirsten was, in a sense, born to the political life. Her grandmother, Polly Noonan, was a secretary without a college education. "But she wanted to have a say in local government, and she wanted other women to have one, too," Kirsten recalls. So Noonan developed, from scratch, a powerful envelope-stuffing, phone-banking political operation of local women in Albany, NY, known as "Polly's Girls." She became president of the local Women's Democratic Club and a confidante of Albany's mayor. As a child, Kirsten Elizabeth Rutnik — then known as Tina — affixed bumper stickers on cars with the feisty Noonan and learned, at her grandmother's boisterous kitchen table, the joy of politics. "I was never afraid of the roughness of it," she says.
After graduating with honors from Dartmouth, Kirsten studied in China (and became fluent in Mandarin), got her law degree at UCLA, and, while working at a New York City law firm, met British venture capitalist Jonathan Gillibrand at a party after she'd begged off their originally scheduled blind date because she had to work late. Jonathan was set to return to the U.K. after receiving his M.B.A. from Columbia University. But they fell in love; he stayed in America, and they married in New York City's St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic church in 2001. Their son Theo was born in 2003.
Kirsten ran for Congress during the same 2006 cycle as Gabby. She remembers seeing Gabby being interviewed on TV the day after the election and "being incredibly impressed. I couldn't wait to meet her." There were events for the freshman Congressional class, but the two women had their own orientation with Debbie. "The three of us became immediately close," Kirsten says. "We're all fighters. We're all policy wonks. We're all consensus builders." They would talk about substantive issues — and make private jokes about Congress still being a Good Ol' Boys Club "all the time, all the time," Kirsten says, with the delight of a woman who knows her time has come. They had so much in common, but the deep trust and loyalty that blossomed among them, in a town where the term "friend" is thrown around lightly, felt like nothing short of a gift. As Debbie puts it, "Our friendship is a refuge."
Away from their public lives, the women got to know one another increasingly well. "Gabby's probably the funniest of the three of us; she makes the most jokes," says Kirsten. Debbie adds, "Kirsten is much more like me; we're both hard-charging." It helped that they all had supportive spouses. As Steve Schultz explains, following her dreams is "something I would never tell Debbie she couldn't do. If you love someone, you don't want to hold them back. Being a Congresswoman was what her heart was set on, so if it was gonna take more sacrifice from me, that was fine."
The Gillibrands chose a different compromise, but also with the man in the flexible-helpmeet role: Jonathan moved his finance business to Washington, DC, so the family could live together while Congress was in session. Kirsten became the sixth pregnant woman in the House of Representatives (her second son, Henry, was born in 2008), enduring "let's say, many awkward moments," she recalls, with older male colleagues who "gave me a lot of unsolicited advice — I probably reminded them of their daughters — which I actually found very charming." She breast-fed Henry for a solid year, not just a rarity in Congress but the kind of precedent-setting juggling that will pave the way for future female lawmakers. "I had my own office, so I could nurse, and Henry was in day care close to the Capitol," she explains. In turn, she benefited from the experience of the previous generation of women: Around the time of her election, the first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, installed pumping rooms across the Capitol area.
Then, in 2009, after newly elected President Obama appointed New York Senator Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State, then — New York Governor David Paterson named Kirsten as Clinton's replacement — but only after the glamorous favorite, Caroline Kennedy, abruptly withdrew from consideration. Suddenly a lot of disappointed Manhattanites, who'd been looking forward to a star-value Senator, were sniffing, "Who's Kirsten Gillibrand?" The Washington Post described her as "under siege" by colleagues and the media. Politico.com leaked that "Within the high school gossip circle that is New York's Congressional delegation, Kirsten Gillibrand's nickname is 'Tracy Flick' — a not-so-flattering reference to the overeager, blond, bubbly, and viciously competitive Reese Witherspoon character in the movie Election."
At 42, and dogged by doubters, Kirsten came to the Senate as the youngest member ever to enter that chamber. "But I never lost hope, because my grandmother taught me: 'Never give up; if you just keep working hard and fighting hard, things will happen,' " she recalls. The result of Polly Noonan's advice? Kirsten was officially elected in 2010, and over the course of almost three years, she has become a powerful Senator and a passionate advocate for women's getting into the political process. "I knew [that] when Kirsten was sworn into the Senate she was going to do an extraordinary job and make a real difference for middle class families across the country," says the House Democratic Whip, Representative Steny Hoyer. "She brings a tough and effective voice to critical issues facing Americans." Adds Dee Dee Myers, "Kirsten exceeded everyone's expectations, maybe even her own. She's been fantastic to watch."
Like her two friends, Gabrielle Giffords was a political star with enormous potential at the time of her shooting. Born in Tucson, she graduated from Southern California's Scripps College, received a master's degree in regional planning (with an emphasis on U.S. — Mexico relations) from Cornell, and did a Fulbright fellowship in Mexico. Her mother has proudly called her "Little Miss Overachiever." When she returned home at her father's request, she went into her family's business, a tire company her grandfather had founded, as president and CEO. Her championing of small business and her Arizona frontier spirit (she's a longtime gun owner) led the fetchingly pretty young leader with the radiant smile to be an attractive local candidate. She was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2000, at 30; then, at 32, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate. From there, Gabby quickly earned her place on the national political radar. For her environmentalism, the Sierra Club honored her with the Most Valuable Player of the year award; for her health-care advocacy, she was named Legislator of the Year by the Mental Health Association of Arizona. When she was elected to Congress in 2006, she was 36 and unmarried. Her confident, breezy competence impressed and charmed veteran political insiders.
No one was more charmed than astronaut Mark Kelly. They'd met briefly before at a government-related conference, but got to know each other in 2004. Gabby was wary of dating because she had, as she once put it, gone out with "some big players, but they weren't really nice men."
Mark, the son of retired New Jersey police officers, was a divorced, down-to-earth fighter pilot and father of two daughters who was flummoxed at the prospect of starting to date after a long marriage. He and Gabby became friends; she even coached him on dating etiquette. ("Call her the next day to say thanks, even if you didn't have a great time," she counseled in phone calls and e-mails.) But in time, both became smitten; he showed up at her campaign events, and she attended his 2006 shuttle launch. Later, Gabby would tell a reporter from "Vows," the New York Times wedding column, "When our relationship just kept getting deeper, I felt a huge sense of relief. I had found someone like me. We're both really curious. We're focused on the same things."
Kirsten knew from close observation that the relationship between Mark and Gabby was more than a fairy tale; it was powerfully real. "They love learning together, doing things together," she says. "That's why he plays such an important part in her recovery. He wants to draw her out."
When Gabby and Mark visited Steve's family's New Hampshire home the last couple of summers, they'd go hiking and sit around the campfire at night playing Bananagrams. Rebecca Schultz and Mark's daughters, Claire and Claudia, now 14 and 15, became friends; they text-message to this day. Steve laughs as he recalls sitting at the lake and watching Mark take Rebecca out on a rented Sunfish. The boat capsized; into the lake the two went. "Here he was, a fighter pilot and shuttle commander, and he could still flip a sailboat in a lake. I was definitely laughing. Did I razz him? A little."
Debbie remembers that she and Gabby would go shopping together at the supermarket and buy "way too much food. We'd cook together at night, taking turns. 'Creative' cooking — we'd have a lot of fun with drinks and desserts. We have a fire pit in our yard, and we'd sit around and make s'mores."
The two couples kept a low profile — so much so that Debbie remembers that one day "Steve was putting up chicken wire" to keep animals out "so Mark woke up early to help out, and they were both sweating their bald heads off. And our neighbor came by and was talking to them. And I guess he didn't realize that I was a member of Congress, so when something came up and that fact was revealed, he said, 'I didn't know Debbie was a Congresswoman!' And then Steve said — pointing to the others — 'Yes, and she's a Congresswoman, too! And he's an astronaut!' " Debbie laughs when she remembers the story, thinking about how unassuming the four of them looked. "Talk about not being able to judge a book by its cover!"
Gabby and Mark were married in 2007 — Gabby in a borrowed Vera Wang gown, Mark in his medal-bedecked white naval dress uniform. Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, famously paid tribute to the couple with his toast: "To a bride who moves at a velocity that exceeds that of anyone else in Washington, and a groom who moves at a velocity that exceeds 17,000 miles per hour." As for his feelings, Mark said of his new bride, "She had it all. Beautiful, smart, hardworking, balanced...and she laughed at my jokes."
She had it all. Mark Kelly's words would echo, first in the hearts and heads of her constituents, and then in the nation at large, as people watched Gabby fight for her life and all the promise that life had once held.
"Gabby, We've Gotta Get You Back"
Kirsten and Debbie flew to Gabby's side four days after the shooting, traveling with the President on Air Force One from Washington, DC, to Tucson. They didn't expect to be able to see their friend, still in intensive care, but wanted to be at the memorial service for those who had perished in the shooting. "So when a member of the Presidential staff told us that we would go to the hospital because Mark wanted us to see Gabby, oh, we were so happy — we wanted so badly to see her," says Debbie. Adds Kirsten, unable to hold back tears, "We were so grateful to have that chance. We weredesperate to hold her, to tell her to fight hard — and that we were with her every step of the way."
The scene in the University Medical Center ICU room was intimate. Gabby's parents were there, as was Nancy Pelosi, standing close at bedside, next to Mark. "Then Kirsten, and then me. We took turns holding and rubbing her hand," Debbie says. Kirsten went first. "She was saying, 'Come on, Gabby, we've gotta get you back. We want you to play softball. We've got to go out for pizza again.' Gabby could hear; she squeezed Kirsten's hand at every sentence."
Then it was Debbie's turn. "I said, 'Gabby, I'm fully expecting you to be back up in New Hampshire this summer. The kids want to see you.' "
At that moment, Gabby started to struggle faintly to open her eyes. Seeing his wife's eyelids flutter, "Mark leapt across the room and said, 'Gabby, Gabby! Open your eyes!' " Kirsten says. He also wanted to make sure she could see him. Debbie remembers that then "Mark said, 'Honey, if you see me, give me the thumbs-up sign. Come on, honey! You can do it! Give me the thumbs-up sign if you can see me. Touch my ring!' " The moments during which Mark was waiting for his wife to respond "felt like an hour," says Kirsten. "I was still holding her hand, squeezing her hand. And we're watching her eyes flicker." Adds Debbie, "And all of a sudden, her eyes flew open, her arm flew up in the air, she touched his ring! She touched his head!"
Kirsten was so proud of her friend, and filled with hope: "A few moments later, Gabby raised her whole hand in a big thumbs-up. We were just streaming with tears — so excited to witness this moment in her life and her husband's life. And we just knew she would make it. Knew she would make it."
Kirsten remembers "the realness of the moment, the intensity, the unbelievable energy — the love — that was in that room: It was incredible." Says Debbie, "Next to giving birth to my three children, this was the most emotional moment of my life."
The two women, elated but exhausted, arrived back in Washington, DC, at 2 A.M. Mark asked them to go on the morning TV shows. Kirsten laughs when she says, "And Debbie's like, 'Of course I'm doing it — call the studio!' And I'm thinking, I cannot wake up in a few hours — this is too much for me. But Debbie is saying, 'Come on, Kirsten, you can do it!' Debbie was very much my strength at that moment." And they both took their strength from Gabby, who, when she'd opened her eyes and raised her hand, had drawn on their support.
Add Women, Change Everything
If you visit Gabby Giffords's website and watch videos from the House floor, it's easy to see the firecracker that her friends describe. On the issue of border control, Gabby implores Congress to deploy the National Guard to manage the violence that has affected her region over the past few years. She is such a young woman, her hair thick and luxurious — pre-shooting — but her voice is strong and sure: "I represent the poorest part of the U.S./Mexican border," she says. "And I am thinking right now about Rob Krentz, a fifth-generation Arizona rancher whose family ranched on their land since before Arizona even reached statehood. On March 27, Rob Krentz was heartlessly murdered...murdered on land that was in his family's hands for over 100 years...so for those of you who are saying that this is not critical, that keeping Americans safe [is not an issue] — whether you live directly on the border or whether you live in other parts of the country — it's outrageous."
Over the four years they served together, Gabby, Kirsten, and Debbie talked often about the importance of getting beyond Congressional posturing to the issues that really mattered. Says Kirsten, "Sometimes we'd look at the nature of the rhetoric, the nature of the debate, and shake our heads. I'd talk about it to Debbie and to Gabby all the time. I remember Gabby and I once saying, 'This [contention] is ridiculous. This is not what we need to be doing for our country. There are so many obvious answers that we need to get to.' "
They also looked forward to the day when Congress would reach some level of gender parity. As Gabby once remarked, "Twenty percent of the Afghan parliament are women. We really can't do better than a country that's been ruled by the Taliban?"
Kirsten underscores that in order for more women to be elected, we have to stop thinking of certain attributes as unfeminine. "I think strength, perseverance, and courage are all female qualities," she explains. "That's what makes us good leaders and consensus builders."
Former President Bill Clinton sums up their contributions this way: "[The work done by Giffords, Gillibrand, and Wasserman Schultz] in health care, education, the environment, public safety, and the economy is a testament to both their exceptional talents and their personal experiences." He says, "We are lucky to have these mothers, daughters, and wives as a part of our government and as role models for girls throughout our nation."
Seeing the difference her friends made in Congress is what inspired Kirsten to form Off the Sidelines (offthesidelines.org), a nonpartisan organization dedicated to getting more women involved in politics and elected to office. "Some of the research shows that women want to be asked," Kirsten says passionately. "It also shows that women don't want to participate in such a blood sport. Politics is seen as such a negative landscape; I want to encourage them to participate anyway. It's not ideal, but not only can you persevere past the worst aspects, but you can fight it."
Gabby, Kirsten, and Debbie are all Democrats, but Republican women are part of their larger circle, too. The women of the Senate have a quarterly bipartisan dinner, and during a recent one, Kirsten says, "[Maine Republican] Susan Collins leaned over to me and said, 'You know, Kirsten, if you and I were doing the budget, it would be already done.' " That quip "was a joke and the truth," explains Susan, who was only the 15th woman in history to be elected to the Senate in her own right and who brings a pivotal nonpartisan perspective. "The women in Congress span the ideological spectrum, just as the men do, and we obviously don't agree on every issue by any means," Collins says. "But I do believe women tend to be more pragmatic. We tend to want to sit down and discuss one another's views, negotiate, and come up with a solution. And I think we're less concerned about who gets credit for that solution."
That's a valuable skill set for an often-gridlocked Congress. And, as the Bush years turned into the Obama years, it got put to use.
Friendships Are Lifeboats
In December of 2007, Debbie was dealt a personal blow that had political reverberations: She was diagnosed with a malignancy in her right breast. Not wanting to alarm her children or be anything less than business-as-usual, she kept the news from all but a few. Her double mastectomy was performed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center so she could be on hand for House votes; she was clicking her BlackBerry before she was fully out of anesthesia; nine days post-op, she held a fund-raiser for Nancy Pelosi, hiding a pain-medication pump in the bottom of her purse. Because she was found to be at genetic risk for ovarian cancer, she also elected to have her ovaries removed. She had breast-reconstruction surgery as well — seven surgeries, all within a year. Few around her had any idea.
During that time, Debbie's closest hometown girlfriends were her lifesavers. "They are moms with busy lives, but they all left Florida and came up to Washington and helped me change my dressing, helped me drain the fluid, helped me get around. They were wonderful," she says.
Shortly after Debbie finally went public about her ordeal in early 2009, while sponsoring a bill about early breast cancer detection and prevention that was aimed at young women, she connected with another Congressional friend, Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a conservative Republican from Missouri. Jo Ann, at 46, ran for and won her husband's seat in 1996, after he died of cancer, and has won reelection in every election since.
Jo Ann remembers that "Debbie and I were lamenting the lack of bipartisanship, and we were looking for ways to build more of it, so we decided, 'Let's have a softball team.' " The men in Congress played partisan baseball — Democrats against Republicans — in big-deal Nationals Park. Debbie and Jo Ann's idea was different: Put Democratic and Republican women together, as teammates. "We'd lead the guys by example," Debbie explains, by playing another team — say, the DC Women's Press Corps — on a small community field. Jo Ann recalls: "I said, 'Since you're a breast cancer survivor, Debbie, why don't we use our team's games to raise money for a breast cancer charity?' " So Debbie connected with the Young Survival Coalition, a group that aids young women facing breast cancer, and the bipartisan Congressional Women's Softball Team was born. "And with all those disparate personalities, we built the team from scratch," Jo Ann proudly says.
The Congresswomen would practice at 7 A.M. up to three times a week — the hardy ones going for a pre-practice jog at 6:30. Limbering up stiff pitching arms, getting purple bruises sliding into bases, bumping into each other in midair while catching pop flies, and slogging through inning after inning in spring and summer of 2009 and 2010, they formed nonideological friendships "that transcended everything — and made for a different dynamic on the House floor," Jo Ann says.
Kirsten enthusiastically joined the team; after the first season, Gabby took a pass. ("She just wasn't into softball," Kirsten says. Debbie adds that some other female legislators, who shall go nameless, "may not want to break a nail" by playing ball.) With Debbie and Jo Ann as House cocaptains, Kirsten and the newly elected junior Senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, became the Senate cocaptains.
Kelly, a married mom of two, was New Hampshire's first female attorney general. She supported legislation that cracked down on sexual and Internet predators, especially those targeting children, and with her first bid for public office in 2010, she was elected to the Senate with 60% of the vote.
The two team cocaptains had some political differences. As attorney general, in an effort to create limits on abortion, Kelly pressed a parental-notification bill all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kirsten has always been actively pro-choice, more vocally since her ascent to the Senate. Yet the two politically disparate cocaptains found common ground as mothers of young children.
"I have a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old," says Kelly. So, while doing deep knee bends and penciling in the batting lineup, "Kirsten and I would talk about how we tricked our kids into eating healthy foods by having a vegetable garden, by drawing smiley faces on the plates." Both Senators are members of the Armed Services Committee, and they are currently planning to develop bipartisan legislation to help military families; the collaboration was a direct result of their ball field friendship.
The bipartisan alliances that Gabby, Kirsten, and Debbie have made underscore a truth that most women know: The experiences we share as wives, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends make us more alike than different. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway have collectively found that when contentious issues like abortion and gay marriage are removed from discussion, "80% of politically disparate women agree on 80% of issues," Celinda says.
Sensing all of this instinctively, and seeing it reinforced in her daily work in Congress — and on the ball field — Kirsten says her mission is "to get more women to understand that, whether you run for office or not, your voice matters. That if you lean in and fight for the things you care about, your participation will make the difference." Her personal and legislative experiences with Debbie and Gabby were her motivation.
And then Gabby was shot.
Presents and Presence
After they visited Gabby, Kirsten and Debbie, along with Representative Adam Smith, organized a Democratic-affiliated reception in mid-March for Gabby, raising over $150,000 in an "overwhelming" outpouring of support from her Congressional colleagues. Should Gabby want to run for another term in office, that money will be waiting for her. But, more meaningfully, the two carved out time to travel not only to Tucson, but also to Houston, where Gabby had entered a rehabilitation center.
Kirsten went twice, trips during which "we talked about everything — what was happening in the House and the Senate, the economy, and Libya: This was right when we were making the decision about whether to engage there, and she was very concerned, and gave me her opinion. She can speak in sentences; she understands all the concepts. And I talked about my kids: how Theo was really good at baseball, and how Henry wants to do what Theo wants to do. She smiled and said, 'Oh, so wonderful.' "
The Senator brought gifts from her New York State constituents: a prayer shawl knitted by a group of women, a get-well card signed by about 100 employees of a Walmart in an upstate New York town that had also endured a tragic shooting. She spent the night on a cot next to Gabby's bed, and both rose at 5:30 A.M. to squeeze in extra chat time before Kirsten had to leave for the airport. During that last trip, "what struck me so much was how beautiful she is. And the warmth that just comes from her being. She is just an extraordinarily loving person. That's what drew her to public service — she wanted to help people. That's all she wanted to do."
As she was departing for her plane, Kirsten gave Gabby "probably the most special thing I owned: an ancient coin that I'd bought when, as a young lawyer, I was visiting the holy sites in Israel. It was from 40 A.D. I'm a Catholic — so, when you think about what was happening there in 40 A.D., it had a lot of significance to me. It is a beautiful pendant on a necklace, and I gave it to Gabby and said, 'Here. I want you to wear this when you recover.' " (Gabby's head was then sometimes encased in a protective helmet; she could not yet easily wear necklaces.) "She looked at it very carefully, and she smiled."
The two friends complemented each other; for Debbie, "the best gift I could give her was my presence — p-r-e-s-e-n-c-e. When you have gone through a health challenge, like I did, you know how important the fierce loyalty of friends is." And that a friend's mere presence can, more than anything, help. "Looking at the four walls of a hospital room is pretty frustrating, especially when someone is as energetic as Gabby. As much as she loves Mark and her parents, after a while you want something different to stimulate you, and it's probably important for her progress, too."
So Debbie became for Gabby what her Florida friends had been for her during her seven surgeries: the "normal, regular friend" who would drop everything to be on the next plane. "I wanted to make sure Gabby knew that if there was anybody she and Mark could count on, from day one to the last day, it would be me." Especially after April 5, when President Obama picked her to be head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Debbie had a schedule that was almost impossibly challenging, but she found time anyway: "I made visiting Gabby my priority. I moved family obligations to get on that plane. All I had to say was, 'I'm going to see Gabby,' and my family was totally supportive." Debbie was there when Gabby uttered one of her first words after the shooting: "toast," indicating what she wanted for breakfast. After that breakthrough — a testament to Gabby's determination and doggedness during rehab — more words started coming. "The friendship and support of Kirsten and Debbie has motivated Gabby throughout her recovery," Mark Kelly says. "Their commitment to each other shows all of us the importance of good friends in our lives."
During Debbie's visit in early May, she, Gabby, and Mark went to dinner in an Italian restaurant in Houston. Gabby was shielded from the public for this private milestone: Though still recovering, the Congresswoman could enjoy a meal out with her husband and a friend.
Since those last visits to Gabby's bedside, two things were going on in Washington, DC, that were, in a sense, contradictory. One: the Congressional Women's Softball Team was coming together, stepping up its 7 A.M. practices. And, two, the Republican-versus-Democratic contention over the nation's debt ceiling was ratcheting up in Congress, creating an angrier deadlock week by week. Debbie was getting flak for "making mistakes" as the newly named head of the DNC (eventually, one of her fellow Floridians, Representative Allen West, would publicly call her "vile," "despicable," and "not a lady"). Kirsten had weathered her own political storm in 2009; now it seemed to be Debbie's turn to take political heat.
On June 8, Debbie called Gabby to wish her a happy 41st birthday. "That was a first," Debbie recalls. "Gabby initiated the talking, rather than just being responsive. It was huge." Gabby's tenacity buoyed her friend.
Two weeks later, on June 23, partisan warfare was alive and well. Still, it was a balmy night, and if you had been at Watkins Recreation Center, a neighborhood ball field in Washington, DC, where the Congressional Women's Softball Team was taking on the Capitol Hill Women's Press Corps (who nicknamed themselves the Bad News Babes), you would have felt transported back to a more innocent time, to a community baseball game in a small town. There was cocaptain (and pitcher) Kirsten tossing balls with cocaptain Kelly Ayotte, and cocaptain (and second baseman) Debbie doing knee bends with cocaptain Jo Ann Emerson — all dressed in official black jerseys with their names on the backs, hair tucked under caps or pulled back in headbands. The team was roughly divided between Republicans and Democrats and was diverse in age (30s to 50s), geography (Hawaii to New Hampshire), ethnicity (African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Caucasian) and creed (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish). Other Congress members and staffers, in after-work clothes, crowded the bleachers. They brought their babies, hugged hello, bought ice cream bars from a truck. Jake Schultz was bat boy; Jonathan Gillibrand hoisted Theo, then Henry, over the fence to their mom, and she coaxed good-luck kisses from each of them.
A color guard did a formal flag presentation, everyone recited the Pledge of Allegiance. A moment of silence was observed for armed-service members serving abroad. A round of applause was given to veterans and active-duty members in the stands, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar called for "a moment to remember Representative Gabrielle Giffords as she continues to recuperate from her injuries," adding, "Gabby, our thoughts and prayers are with you every day."
Then, in a hyped-up-sportscaster's voice, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reeled off the names of the players as each woman ran to her field position, the crowd hooting and hollering, milling about, and smiling and laughing. There was John Boehner! There was Alan Greenspan! And there was Nancy Pelosi in the dugout — slipping off her office jacket, briefly revealing a white camisole, and pulling a pink Young Survival Coalition tee over her head, then joining the official cheerleading squad: four Congresswomen jumping up and down with pom-poms. With all this off-duty goodwill, "we could probably solve the debt-ceiling crisis right now," Mitchell wisecracked through the speakers.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a gauzy zebra-print top over a black T-shirt and leggings, strode to the pitcher's mound to throw out the first pitch, receiving hoots of applause. She was joined by a young breast cancer survivor named Jennifer — more applause! Two pitches thrown; game on.
Base hits! Line drives! A home run! Strikes and balls and outs, and bases loaded. More outs, and sides retired: As the game proceeded, to increasing cheers, Mitchell's introduction of the batters reflected the rangy grit of the women in Congress. "Kathy Hochul [Democratic Representative, NY] is the daughter of a steelworker." "Jean Schmidt [Republican Representative, OH] has run 86 marathons." "Laura Richardson [Democratic Representative, CA] tried out for the Olympics in 1980." Jo Ann: "Her first babysitter was Cokie Roberts." Debbie: "Her twins were born one hour and thirty seconds apart. Not many male players can say that." Kirsten: "She sat in an Armed Services bill markup session for 12 hours before going home and having her son Henry."
In the bottom of the last inning, the teams were deadlocked 4 to 4. Then Debbie came up to bat, hit a single with runners on first and second — and won the game for her team, 5 to 4. She was named the game's Most Valuable Player; the team dedicated the win to Gabby, and the winning pink softball was autographed by the entire Congressional women's team — plus Pelosi, Hoyer, and the captains of the press team — for their friend.
"Gabby inspires us all," Kirsten says. "She's struggling for her life right now. She's struggling to be able to be all that she was before this awful crime was committed against her. And that empowers me. It strengthens me. And it tells me, 'You better do your job. And you better do it well. Not only for Gabby's sake, but for every woman who's fought in her life to get women to where they are today.' "
Was the youngest member of Congress when she joined
Marriage to a naval officer strengthened her advocacy for military families
DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ
Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee
Former NH attorney general; currently the youngest female Senator
JO ANN EMERSON
Founding member of the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat
Ranking member, Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs
VOTE, RUN, LEAD
The 2012 elections are exactly one year away — and many issues of critical importance to women and families will be on the line. Here are some organizations that can help you raise your voice on the issues that matter the most to you. As Florynce Kennedy, a founder of the Women's Political Caucus, once said, "Don't agonize. Organize."
Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign encouraging women to be more active in politics is a place to go if you want to volunteer for a campaign, be a mentor to young women, or run for office yourself.
This nonpartisan nonprofit offers workshops, often held on weekends, around the country. "Go Run" is a boot camp version of what it takes to run for office; "Go Lead" trains women to run a campaign effectively, with workshops on subjects such as managing budgets, fund-raising, and public speaking.
A great example of the "act locally, think globally" movement, this rural-focused women's leadership initiative zeroes in on solving the nation's food issues by training women to be leaders at every level, from food co-op boards to city councils to Congress.