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Posted Jun 23, 2012, 3:36 pm
A crowd of about 250 braved a blazing sun and intense heat to meet with their congressman on Saturday.
Some of them braved memories of a similar event 18 months ago, as they met with newly elected U.S. Rep. Ron Barber at the first CD 8 "Congress On Your Corner" event since the Jan. 8 shootings.
Many lined up for more than two hours to shake Barber's hand, share a brief word, and give their contact information to a staffer for follow-up.
While dozens sheltered from the heat on the covered sidewalk outside the Safeway store where the event was held, the back half of the line stretched across the grocery's front, with little shade to be found. Safeway employees and congressional staffers passed out dozens of bottles of water to thirsty constituents. The National Weather Service reported that the temperature spiked to 106 for three hours Saturday afternoon.
Barber said he was "very touched and very pleased that so many people came out and braved this incredibly hot weather."
"You cannot serve the people ... if you don't hear what they have to say," the Democrat said.
The event was delayed from a planned 9 a.m. start because Barber's return from Washington, D.C. was delayed by storms and a fire at an FAA facility that disrupted air travel on Friday.
The meet-and-greet with constituents was held at a Safeway store on East Grant Road. Barber said that he had concerns that it "wouldn't be appropriate" to hold his first such event at the Northwest Side grocery store where the Jan. 8 shooting spree left six dead and 13 wounded.
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Even so, the meeting had overtones of the "Congress On Your Corner" that saw Barber shot twice, and his previous boss, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, shot through the head in what authorities say was an assassination attempt.
"It's the first time I've been at 'Congress On Your Corner' for a year and half," Barber said after he'd spoken with constituents for nearly three hours. "The last time was a pretty terrible day for everybody."
In comparison, "it's hot out here, but these folks stuck it out for two and a half or more hours, and I certainly wasn't going to leave until everyone had a chance to meet," Barber said.
One of a group of Jan. 8 victims who waited to see the congressman was retired Army Col. Bill Badger, who helped tackle accused gunman Jared Loughner.
"When I heard there was going to be a 'Congress On Your Corner,' it really disturbed me," he said.
"But I knew I had to be here," Badger said, saying he had no concerns about security.
"The only thing that really bothered me was walking up here and seeing all the chairs lined up. I remember the people sitting in the chairs and each one of them being shot," said Badger, who was himself shot while waiting to speak with Giffords.
On Saturday, two Tucson Police Department patrol cars idled in the parking lot, and several plainclothes officers kept a close watch on the crowd.
Patricia Maisch, who disarmed Loughner as he tried to reload, said she was "very comfortable coming down" on Saturday to meet with Barber.
She said the event "reaffirms to me that we need to go on with our lives. That young man has taken everything he's going to take from me."
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"I'm going to continue to live like I would if that day never happened," she said.
At the front of the line to greet Barber were Jim Tucker and his wife Doris, who were also near the front of the line on Jan. 8. Jim was shot in the chest and the right shoulder.
Others who bear the scars of Jan. 8 also waited for a word with Barber, including Pam Simon, a Giffords staffer who was shot that day; Roger Salzgeber, who helped tackle Loughner; Nancy Bowman, a nurse who attended to the dying Christina-Taylor Green; and Ross Zimmerman, the father of slain Giffords staffer Gabriel Zimmerman.
Barber described the event as "an essential part of the democratic process."
"It was challenging but I really felt it was necessary to do this," he said after the event.
"We cannot be scared away from doing our job," he said. "We have to make sure, as members of Congress, that people get to meet you, get to talk to you."
"Whether it's good, bad or indifferent, they need to have contact in a very personal way," he said.
Barber said that most of those who spoke to him Saturday relayed concerns about Medicare, Social Security, border issues and veterans benefits.
Barber said his first week in Congress was "a whirlwind."
"We had votes within minutes after I was sworn in," he said.
Barber said he aims to "make gridlock disappear and start solving problems" by working across the aisle.