ORLANDO – One of the first things that Peg Dunmire thought of when she heard about the tragic shootings in Tucscon, Arizona that critically injured a local congresswoman was the final day of her own campaign for Congress last November. On that single day, Dunmire and her staff and supporters watched uncomfortably as four men followed them from one event to the next.
It was election day, and Dunmire — the Florida Tea Party’s candidate for the state’s 8th Congressional District — had posted her campaign schedule on her Web site that morning.
As she and her staff traveled from one event to the next, they noticed the same four men following her everywhere they went.
“They got my schedule because I had released it that morning, where I was going to be on Election Day,” Dunmire said. “They went to all my events.”
Finally, the staff got nervous enough that they contacted police. An officer approached one of the men to find out why he was following the candidate.
“You know what they said?” Dunmire recalled. “They said, ‘Because she’s not a legitimate candidate.’ I think elections decide that.”
Saturday’s shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson has set off a national debate about anger, violence and heated political rhetoric in American politics.
It’s not yet clear if the man arrested for the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, had any clear political motive, but the case has put a spotlight on the issue of inflammatory political language, and spurred a number of lawmakers to question how they can protect themselves at public events — with a few promising they’ll carry weapons themselves from now on.
Another lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., announced she would introduce legislation aimed at banning the high-capacity ammunition clip used by the gunman in the Tucson shootings. McCarthy won a seat in Congress in 1996, three years after her husband was shot and killed, and her son seriously injured, during a shooting on a Long Island commuter train.
Dunmire, the chairman of the Florida Tea Party, said she understands how ugly campaign speech can get, noting that the stalkers who followed her on election day were symptomatic of anyone who disagreed with her views or platform, and responded as if her candidacy posed a threat.
“I ended up being subjected to the rhetoric of hate,” Dunmire said. “It happened to me here. We need to understand this hostility is pervasive.”
On the day she got stalked, she recalled, “I wasn’t intimidated, but a lot of the people around me were. Perhaps it should have been a little more intimidating when I think about what happened to Representative Giffords, because my sons repeatedly warned me that there are a lot of crazies out there.”
Still, Dunmire said the solution isn’t to push for new laws, including new gun control measures similar to the legislation Rep. McCarthy has proposed, or a suggestion by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., on CNN that he’d draft a bill making it a crime to use words or images that looked violent or threatening to public officials.
“My concern is the opportunists will use this (assassination attempt) as a justification for taking away more of our freedoms, and clamping down on freedom of speech,” Dunmire said.
Candidates and incumbent lawmakers can’t turn every political event into a heavily armed, screened and guarded fortress, Dunmire said.
“Does this mean TSA-type body searches in order to just see your congressman?” she asked. “This is what we don’t want to happen. The role of the government is to secure our rights. The role of the government is not to make us safe.”
Dunmire ran for the seat then held by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson. Both candidates lost to the Republican nominee, Dan Webster.
On Monday, Grayson issued a statement about his friendship with Giffords, who had served with him on the House Committee on Science and Technology.
“I’m going to let others comment on what this means for America,” Grayson said of the shootings. “I just want to say what it means to me.”
He noted that Giffords’ D.C. office was one floor above his, and “I saw Gabby dozens, if not hundreds of times, during our two years together. And nearly every time that I can remember, she was smiling. Gabby is one of the most cheerful, charming and engaging people I have ever known. She’s always looking on the bright side. She has something good to say about pretty much everyone. Bad news never lays a glove on her. She loves life, and all the people in it. No matter what is going on in your life, after fifteen minutes with Gabby, you’ll feel that you can touch the stars.”
Grayson noted that like himself, fellow Democrat Giffords faced a tough re-election battle, although she narrowly won.
“I always thought that if each of her constituents could spend that fifteen minutes with her, and see what she is really like, then she would win with 99.9% of the vote,” Grayson wrote. “You would want her as your congressman, because you would want her as your friend. I know nothing about the man who shot Gabby, and what was going through his mind when he did this. But I will tell you this – if he shot Gabby out of hatred, then it wasn’t Gabby he was shooting, but rather some cartoon version of her, drawn by her political opposition. Because there is no way – no way – that anyone who really knows Gabby could hate her or hurt her. She is a kind, gentle soul.”
He added, “My heart goes out to Mark Kelly, Gabby’s husband, and the many, many people who love her. Gabby, we don’t want to lose you. Please stay here with us.”
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