Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) M.R.P. ’96 was the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Arizona State Senate and is only the third woman in Arizona’s history to be elected to U.S. Congress. The Cornell alumna also holds the distinction of being Arizona’s first Jewish female representative. Recently named one of “America’s Eight Young Leaders Worth Watching,” she took time in between votes at the House of Representatives to answer a few questions about healthcare, immigration and her time on the Hill.
The Sun: You were the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate and the third woman in Arizona’s history to be elected to Congress.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: I also think I’m the youngest woman in Congress right now.
Sun: What took so long?
Giffords: It’s interesting. Arizona is a pretty unique state. We’re the first state to have an elected woman governor. We also have one of the highest percentages of women in our state legislature, and in my home city of Tucson, we have a majority-women city council. So women have certainly been making great strides in getting elected to local and state positions, but it’s more difficult on a federal level.
Sun: How do you think the increasing number and visibility of female politicians — from your election to Nancy Pelosi’s recent election as the first female Speaker of the House — is changing politics on a federal level?
Giffords: What I’ve noticed as a generalization — this is not 100 percent accurate — is that women as policymakers come to office for two reasons. One, there’s a great need that’s not being met. Or because people have encouraged them to run, and they’ve done it. Women are also more concerned with areas such as children’s education, healthcare, budgeting — because oftentimes, not always, it’s women that have traditionally taken a larger role in terms of family matters and dealing with the healthcare issues. So again, it’s a great generalization, [but] oftentimes women are more interested in getting the job done and not getting credit for it, whereas our male counterparts are more interested in getting credit.
Sun: On that note, a little about current issues in Washington. As a Fulbright scholar, you spent time living in Mexico and are proposing employment reforms to help Mexico create new jobs. Can you elaborate on your plans?
Giffords: We can’t just have an open border with people coming in and out. We need to know where people are coming from, where they’re going, what they want. Hopefully within the next couple of months we’re going to vote on comprehensive immigration reform. The President talked about it in the State of the Union and he talked about it in last year’s State of the Union. That would entail a couple of areas. One would be to punish employers who are knowingly hiring [illegal immigrants] — because it’s a two-sided coin; there’s a supply side, and there’s a demand side. So far we’ve only been looking at the supply side. The second area is a guest worker program, where people could come in and work legally, safely, seasonally and then go back to their home country. Right now, that kind of visa doesn’t exist. It’s really important for our economy in terms of agricultural work, construction work, work in the tourism industry — we don’t have the labor force for it right now. So a worker program would be part of the solution as well.
Sun: You’ve criticized President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, emphasizing that American students are competing on a global level. How can the government improve public education to better equip American students to compete internationally?
Giffords: Well, there’s lots of things. We have to have a vision. In the 1960’s … we were afraid of the Russians, we’d thought they’d launched Sputnik and that we were falling behind. And that vision drove a whole generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and academic programs — and we led. And now we need to have a new mission. … I believe that the next generation of our scientists, mathematicians, engineers — our kids — will be inspired to look at the way we move around the planet, look at our vehicles and the way that we heat our homes and our offices. And frankly, with the issues of global warming and climate change, we need to get on this. And we need to do it with vision and leadership.
Sun: As a member of the Arizona legislature, you were very involved in health coverage for low-income families, and you were named 2004’s Legislator of the Year by the Mental Health Association of Arizona. Now that you’re working on a national level, how do you plan to expand your involvement in healthcare issues?
Giffords: I would like to see national mental healthcare — every person that goes to see a doctor should have their whole body insured, not just illnesses from the neck down. When the leading cause of sick days in the workplace are psychologically caused — depression, stress, anxiety — it makes sense for us to be requiring insurance companies to cover your entire body. And not just parts of your body. So the reason why I was awarded that is for my work for mental health care, and it’s something we have to continue to push towards.
Sun: Can you tell us about your role on the Committee on Science and Technology? What is it that you do, and what is the committee planning for the upcoming year?
Giffords: [The committee] just passed legislation on Wednesday that dealt with methamphetamine cleanup — that is now considered the number one crime problem in Arizona. In some areas, 60 or 70 percent of people that are being incarcerated right now have meth in their system. Meth is unlike any other drug: it’s cheap, it’s highly addictive and it’s devastating. So the committee is pretty broad, it covers everything from meth to alternative energy. I’m on the subcommittee on energy and environment; we’re looking at alternative energy sources. Voting machines are another area the committee is going to look at, because it’s federally required technology and the Science and Technology committee will address it. It’s critical for our nation and for democracy for people to know that every single vote is counted correctly. And that we have a verifiable paper trail that is sure and will prove in a recount that we know how people voted.
Sun: That’s interesting — I’m not sure many people know that the Committee on Science and Technology deals with voting machines.
Giffords: It’s interesting. When the Republicans took the committee over, they changed the name to just Science. Frankly, a lot of our federal leadership has pulled away from science, you know, and I’m excited to be a part of this. There should be separation of church and state—we need to be teaching science in schools, and there should be a separation when it comes to teaching students about religion. It’s important, but not in science class.
Sun: You graduated from Cornell with a Master’s degree in Regional Planning in 1996. Did you have political aspirations at the time?
Giffords: No, not at all. You know, actually, I left [Cornell] and went to go work briefly on a project for Price Waterhouse in New York City, then was asked to come back and run my family’s tire and automotive business, which I did, in 1996. My friends in the Planning department laughed at me, of course — the tire business was very far removed from planning. The way I became involved with the public sector was, you can have the best planners in the world but the policy, the people that are making the decisions, are the politicians. Also, you know a lot of the industry leaders. So I thought that being an industry leader and running a business would be good skills to have for the future. And I ran the business for about four years, and then just fell into politics. Once I got reestablished back in my hometown of Tucson, serving on a variety of community boards … I realized that the state of Arizona was usually at the very bottom of all of our states in terms of education, of healthcare and environmental and mental health funding. And I wanted to do something about it, so I started to run for office. But [while I was at Cornell] I had no inkling or inclination of doing that.
Sun: So you weren’t involved with any political organizations while you were at Cornell?
Giffords: Not at all.
Sun: One last question. Did you go to Harvard for your undergraduate degree?
Giffords: No, I went to Scripps College. I went to Harvard for one of their executive programs.
Sun: So you’ve spent time at Harvard for an executive program and spent time at Cornell getting your master’s degree. Who would you root for in a Cornell-Harvard hockey game?
Giffords: Oh, Cornell! My heart’s with Cornell, for sure.
Correction Appended: In the second sentence of the second answer, Giffords said that Arizona is “the first state to have an elected woman governor.” Arizona is actually the first state to have an elected woman governor succeed an elected woman governor.