After The Shooting: Tucson Seeks The New Normal

TUCSON, AZ — They cheered, they cried, they celebrated and they mourned. And for perhaps the first time since the deadly shootings on Jan. 8, Tucson did it as one when the city gathered for last night’s memorial service on the campus of the University of Arizona.

In the days immediately following the massacre at a constituent event for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Tucson struggled to find its footing. As I was told so many times by so many different people this week, Tucson is the “Berkeley of Arizona,” a blue drop in a sea of red. So perhaps it was no surprise that the first reaction to the killings was fractured, rather than united with the state as a whole.

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Just hours after suspected gunman Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage outside a Safeway in one of the posher areas of the city I toured this week, Tucson Tea Party Patriots leader Allyson Miller struck a combative tone. She had already checked her group’s Facebook page to make sure Loughner wasn’t a tea partier.

“I think anytime you start suppressing freedom of speech, I think it’s wrong,” she told me. “I live here and I didn’t hear anything [in the 2010 campaign] that concerned me in terms of inciting violence.”On the ground in Arizona, progressives were just as feisty. Alex Winant, a self-described “Arizona liberal,” went off on the conservatives who run his state after he laid flowers near the spot where Loughner allegedly opened fire. In a long, emotional tangent, he described being “sure” that conservatives were behind the attack when he first heard of it, and — like many on the left I spoke to those first couple days — used the shooting to turn on the tone that he said is prevalent just beyond Tucson’s Berkeley borders.

“I feel like it’s OK to be racist here,” he told me.

That was where things stood in those first 48 hours or so, when the entire city would stop to listen to the 10 AM updates on Giffords’ condition from her doctors. While both sides shared in a blanket horror at the shootings, they also agreed that it was impossible for Tucson to grow closer in the wake of the attack. The more likely scenario, they said, was that the recriminations from both sides would deepen the chasm between right and left on the cactus-lined streets of Tucson.

Days later, that storyline seems less likely. It seems inevitable that Tucson will be different now, with both sides — at least in the near-term — too weary from what happened Saturday to pick up the campaign rhetoric where they left it in November.

Pima County Democratic Party chair Jeff Rogers told me it was “too soon to tell” if the shooting would change politics on the national level — he had no doubt the shooting would have no effect on right-wing radio hosts and the like, however — but he said the tone in Tucson was already somewhat less combative before the shooting and he expected that to continue.

“It’s pretty horrible what happened,” Rogers said. “Everyone is feeling that.”

Rogers’ foil on the Republican side of the line, Brian Miller, said he was ready to help change the tone. Miller was one of the Republicans who lost to Jesse Kelly, Giffords’ last Republican opponent, in the 2010 GOP primary. Kelly, of course, was the guy with the notorious “Shoot an M-16” fundraiser that became the poster child for the violent political rhetoric in the last campaign.

Miller wouldn’t comment on that specifically, but said that the next campaign for Congress won’t look like the last one if he has anything to say about it.

“Obviously after an event like this there should be some introspection and retrospection,” Miller told me. “I do think there will be a tempering, and I’ll do it [at the county GOP.]”

Some of that introspection and retrospection was already on display in the state legislature, where lawmakers quickly wrote and unanimously passed a law aimed at protecting grieving families in Tucson from Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, which planned to stage some of its infamous protests.

State Rep. Daniel Patterson (D-Tucson) said there was a real change in the tenor in Phoenix after the shooting, one that he said both sides are working to continue as the shooting fades into history.

“The responsibility for restoring respect falls on all of us,” Patterson said.

Among the tea party in Tucson — which took the brunt of the criticism after the shooting — there seems to be a reticence when it comes to embracing the new political reality in the city. Johnathan Paton, an Iraq War vet, state legislator and the NRCC’s choice to take on Giffords before Kelly beat him in the ’10 GOP primary, told me that the Tucson tea party he counted among his supporters were already “respectful” before the shooting, but he hoped that some of their anti-politician rhetoric will change now.

“They keep saying they love the Consitution but they hate the officers who are there to protect the Constitution,” Paton said, referring to politicians. “There’s good reason for this — a lot of politicians become dirtbags.”

“I guess if you were going to point to a cultural thing that I would like to see [come out of the shooting[, it would be at least an understanding that public service in the form of elected office is a noble thing,” Paton said. “I think that Americans in a lot of ways keep forgetting that.”

From a straight up political perspective, even the tea party believes their role in Tucson’s Congressional politics will be very different now. They just have to figure out how to get there. Trent Humphries, leader of Tucson’s largest tea party group — which is proudly unaffiliated with any national tea party umbrella organization — told me that he’ll keep fighting for what he believes in, but it’s clear those battle lines are very different now.

“I do suspect that after what’s happened, If Giffords is able to return to Congress and run again, I think she probably holds this seat from now on,” Humphries told me.

“We’re going to keep going as we’re going,” he added. “We’ll have to just work with her now.”