Giffords assures crowd at Capitol ceremony she’s ‘still fighting’

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords gets a hug from a well-wisher after an event to name a room at the U.S. Capitol in honor of her and the late California Rep. Leo J. Ryan Jr., both victims of gun violence while serving in office. (Photo by Trevor Fay/Cronkite News)

From left, Democratic Reps. Jackie Speier of California and Frederica Wilson of Florida, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the event to honor Giffords and the late Leo Ryan Jr. of California. (Photo by Trevor Fay/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – It’s been almost six years since Gabrielle Giffords walked the halls of the Capitol, but her time away does not appear to have reduced the number of friends and supporters the former Tucson congresswoman has here.

Close to 100 people turned out Wednesday as lawmakers renamed a Democratic meeting room to honor Giffords and former Rep. Leo Ryan Jr., D-California, who was killed 39 years ago this week while investigating a cult compound in Jonestown, Guyana.

The room was filled with staffers and former colleagues as Giffords entered, many of whom approached for a quick greeting before the half-hour ceremony.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who led the ceremony, said Giffords continues to awe with her exceptional courage and efforts to build a better America.

“Indeed, throughout America, there isn’t a name that stirs more love, more admiration, more respect, more wishing for our daughters to be like her, than the name of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords,” Pelosi said.

Giffords was severely wounded in a January 2011 shooting in Tucson that left six dead and 12 others wounded. She told the bipartisan crowd that she still has trouble walking and speaking as a result of her injuries. But speak she did.

The House Democratic Cloakrom in the Capitol is now named in honor of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, wounded in a 2011 attack in Tucson, and former California Rep. Leo J. Ryan, who was murderd in a 1978 attack. (Photo by Trevor Fay/Cronkite News)

“I’m still fighting to make the world a better place, and you can, too. Get involved in your community. Be a leader, set example,” Giffords said.

The Democratic Cloakroom – now dubbed the Gabrielle Giffords-Leo J. Ryan Room – is not the first room in the Capitol to be named in honor of a victim of the January 2011 Tucson shooting at a “Congress on Your Corner” event Giffords was holding. Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, who was killed in that attack, had a meeting room in the Capitol Visitors Center named for him months after the shooting.

For some, the emotions of that day are still fresh. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, was somber Wednesday as he recalled the day Giffords was shot.

“I immediately jumped in my car and drove toward Tucson. Only to hear on the way, the erroneous report that Gabby had passed on,” said Flake, his voice wavering.

Ashley Nash-Hahn, a former member of Giffords’ staff, said that being recognized alongside Ryan means a lot to the former congresswoman. The House on Tuesday approved a resolution calling for the renaming.

“She’s incredibly honored to share the naming of the cloakroom with Congressman Ryan, who was also committed to representing his constituents,” said Nash-Hahn.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, a longtime friend of Giffords’, said there are very few rooms in the Capitol building named to honor individuals. Wasserman Schultz said Giffords has shown she deserves to be recognized for her endurance and spirit.

“It’s recognition of what she meant to this institution, what she meant to the people of Arizona,” she said. “I think it symbolizes her integrity and her goodness.”

After the ceremony, Giffords climbed the few steps to the cloakroom so she could pose for photos in front of the newly named Gabrielle Giffords-Leo J. Ryan Room.

She declined interviews, but in a statement provided by the staff of Giffords – the organization she founded to fight gun violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings – she said she hopes conversations in the newly renamed cloakroom will inspire action that leads to a brighter and safer future. And she said that while her time in Congress is over, she’ll never stop serving the American people.

“I’m working hard – lots of therapy. Speech therapy, physical therapy, and yoga too,” Giffords told the crowd at the end of the ceremony. “But my spirit is strong as ever.”

-Cronkite News video by Trevor Fay