Cell phone messages alerted URI juniors Tristany and Kirsten Leikem about the shooting in their hometown of Tucson that involved U.S. Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords and others. The twins were home on winter break.
“It was so traumatic for us,” said Tristany, who along with her twin sister Kirsten had interned last summer in Giffords’ busy Tucson office where the phones rang every two minutes and the rule was no phone should ring more than twice.
Arizona appeared to be the epicenter of the country’s contentious politics and Giffords’ office was in the midst of political bickering, particularly prior to the November elections.
“At times the anger was palpable,” said Kirsten, a double major in political science and economics. “After a phone call, I often had to re-group. I understand that it was and is a frustrating time with the economy and other things going on in people’s lives but…”
The twins gave the hardest calls to Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, Giffords’ personable community outreach director. He was the “go-to-guy” for everything from callers to a printer on the brink. The 30-year-old Arizonian, who drank diet soda by the case, was funny, smart, and handsome. He knew legislation and how to get information and locate resources for constituents.
He organized “Congress on Your Corner” events for the congresswoman and was in the Safeway parking lot when the gunman opened fire on the crowd, shooting 19 people, six fatally—including Gabe.
When Giffords’ office re-opened after the shooting, the twins volunteered their services. “We personalized the violence because we had directly experienced anger and frustration from constituents,” said Tristany. “Political discourse did not cause the shooting, of course. But everyone, even lunatics, are influenced by society, and you can’t ignore the unhealthy, perpetual anger that exists.”
After the shooting, Giffords’ office was chaotic with the press and members of the public crowding into the office with prayers and thoughts for the congresswoman’s recovery. Tristany and Kirsten handed them sheets of paper to express their thoughts. “People seemed to feel better after writing their thoughts,” Kirsten said. “They felt like they had made a contribution.”
The twins, key members of the women’s tennis team starting in both singles and doubles for the Rams, returned to campus for practice and spring semester.
“Being back on campus has brought some sense of normalcy back, but the shooting is always in the back of my mind,” said Tristany a double major in political science and journalism. “It was a life changing experience. It has given me more direction in what kind of work I want to do, and what kind of person I want to be. I’m more motivated than ever to live up to the standards that Gabe and Representative Giffords set.
“Gabe was amazing, but he wasn’t the exception. All the staff members are special. They’re hard workers, kind but know how to have fun in the process. They don’t ask for recognition, but this staff and other staffs like it in the country are the backbone of our government.”
“I have a better appreciation for life. You learn from it. Do you retreat? Or do you move on? I’m more geared now toward public service, public policy,” said Kirsten, noting that she and her sister would like to work in the representative’s office this summer if their schedules allow it.
By Jan Wenzel ’87