Sunday, 9 January 2011

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shooting: remembering the lowly staffers

I couldn't let today's shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords pass without saying a few things.

First of all, my heart goes out to all that were affected by the tragedy. Thirteen people were shot, nine fatally. What a senseless act in what is becoming a more and more senseless time in American politics.

Giffords is the 'face' of the tragedy but, as a former political staffer, I have to admit that I zeroed in on who she had with her at the constituency 'meet and greet'.

There were seven people working with her, five staff and two interns all from her Tucson office. According to
Arizona Central, her district director Ron Barber, community-outreach worker Pam Simon and director of community outreach Gabe Zimmerman were shot. The first two are expected to survive, Mr. Zimmerman was killed.

Gabe Zimmerman delivers a message from Congresswoman Giffords
Zimmerman (source: Flickr)

Zimmerman, 30, was the director of community outreach based in her Tucson constituency office. A Politico article says that he worked for the member since 2007 and was engaged to be married.

He is credited with creating the 'Congress on Your Corner' events, which is what was taking place today. The Congresswoman's website describes the event as a chance for "... residents of Arizona’s 8th Congressional District to meet their congresswoman one-on-one and discuss with her any issue, concern or problem involving the federal government".

A Giffords spokesman said that Zimmerman was the quintessential community-based staffer: "He truly cared about helping people. There were no politics involved in this." Her campaign chair said "He worked tirelessly to solve people's problems." (Source)

My Stuff
I was a constituency-level staffer for a number of politicians, including a couple of federal cabinet ministers. The job was interesting and at times rewarding, but certainly not glamorous as some people seemed to think.

It was low pay, long hours and few of the perqs like routine receptions and free-shwag events that those in Ottawa could take advantage of to round out their daily dietary needs or weekend wardrobe requirements.

If you didn't love working with the people and the community groups you were trying to help, you'd probably be better off working at a 7-11 for what your hourly pay worked out to !

I am guessing that the lot of a community outreach director for a federal congresswoman would be similar, though my dealings U.S. constituency offices was pretty limited. Given Zimmerman's age and the fact that he was in a Safeway parking lot fending off constituents on a Saturday afternoon leads me to believe that there probably is a parallel.

Winnipeg Police Museum
Though I haven't done that job for almost a decade, it got me to thinking about something that I used to have to as aprt of my job: security. Realizing that you can't stop a madman intent to do harm, still, what is the balance for elected representatives between basic personal security and just being careless ?

One Minister I worked for had an international position at a time when Canada was at war. The House of Commons and minister's building were a pain to get into for a visiting staffer. Calls from international profile people needed to be rerouted to a secure fax or phone. Demonstrations held in Ottawa would bring a near-lockdown situation. Yet, on this side of the Manitoba - Ontario border, it was often just me and a strip mall office no more secure than the toiletry shop next door.

I pushed for some basic security features to bring us up to 'maw and paw' convenience store level, which gave a slight feeling of comfort when we had a threat or problem constituent. I thought it was so bizarre to have such a difference in security from one office to another.

At another office that I worked in, a bulletproof vest was a sometimes-used piece of equipment for my employer. I would comment to the boss, only half-jokingly, that I should at least get issued a hardcover notebook to bring with me on 'those days' as whatever is going to happen to them would likely spill over onto me.

A final anecdote ... One day I was driving an Quebec federal cabinet minister around town and a car beside us tried to change lanes without signaling (bienvenue a Winnipeg, ministre !). I had to swerve a bit and nothing bad happened. The minister remarked that thankfully we didn't live in a place where we now had to worry about armed men jumping from the vehicle. That got us onto the subject of security. He said that in Quebec, provincial cabinet ministers had a Surete du Quebec assignment whereas in most provinces the minister could ride up on a bicycle without anyone noticing.

I hope that in Canada things have changed a bit. That perhaps constit offices have a minimal level of security and that staff would at least get a pep talk from the RCMP on personal safety matters and tips on what to watch out for.

I hope that in the U.S. they can find a way to balance their greater need for security with the need to keep their federal elected representatives available to the public.

It is important that things like Gabe Zimmerman's 'Congress on Your Corner' continue.

Gabrielle Giffords' Congressional Homepage
Gabrielle Giffords Channel Youtube
Lawmakers consider their safety after Giffords shooting Politico

1 comment:

John Dobbin said...

Spent some time as a staffer myself. Can still remember security coming running for some agitated individual who was wandering the halls.