Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Running for Gabrielle Giffords’s House seat, is not Martha McSally’s first challenge - The Washington Post

By Ann Gerhart,

Martha McSally is drinking a Negra Modelo from the bottle at a Mexican joint here after another long day running in 103-degree heat for the honor of serving in an institution with a 13 percent approval rating.

She is the first female U.S. fighter pilot to fly in combat and the first woman to command a fighter squadron. As a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, she sued then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld over the military requirement that servicewomen wear Muslim garb when off base in Saudi Arabia and got it changed.

It is in her constitution to charge hard at the very thing she’s been told is impossible and out of line.

Now, in her first bid for political office, she is going after the congressional seat that would seem most out of reach. Running as a Republican, she aims to replace the beloved Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic congresswoman who was gunned down outside a Safeway on a Saturday morning while meeting with constituents, a crime that lacerated this community and horrified the nation.

To do that, McSally has to defeat the man who won a special election in June, Ron Barber, who was Giffords’s district director and was shot in the head that day.

What kind of person runs against that legacy?

“Pioneer, leader, servant” is how the retired colonel, 46, introduces herself to those she seeks to represent in one of America’s flintiest swing districts.

“Am I nuts?” is what she first asked herself after plunging into a world that is as chaotic as the military is structured.

“The special election was about the legacy, and November is about the best representation for this district,” is what she had answered at the last event, when a supporter at a small meeting gingerly brought up “the Gabby factor.”

Now, at dinner, with her elderly dog at her feet and her nephew/driver/yard-sign toter eyeing her leftovers, McSally relates how she went from being a professor in Germany in January, teaching a course on the Arab Spring, to being a candidate a week after Giffords resigned.

It is a brash story about the advice she sought, heard and then ignored — to come home to the house she bought in 1994 when stationed here at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, to put down her roots and run for school board or be a precinct chairman.

Don’t do it, you can’t be successful, you’ll be labeled a loser, she was told. Don’t blow your chances, with that impressive résumé and smarts and personal charisma, to be a political star. Take the conventional path.

“I had nothing to lose; I already had quit my job. So I said, ‘Now, what do I have to do? Probably file some paperwork, right?’ ” McSally, who is single, says with a grin.

For better or worse, that is not how McSally is constructed. Her formerprofession, in some part, may explain that. In war, there are casualties. Losses are mourned, but sentiment is not part of the mission. She has never met Giffords or gone to look at the supermarket where so much carnage took place.

The rest of the explanation, the larger part, is McSally’s obvious relish for blazing the most difficult trails. She’s feisty and funny, blunt and occasionally profane.

When former Republican senator Rick Santorum took a stand against women in combat during his presidential bid, McSally went on television and said she “wanted to go kick him in the Jimmy” for saying that.

She went to a private lunch earlier this month to persuade an elusive donor to give to her campaign. “And I didn’t even have to give the pitch, because he said right away he was going to give me $2,500,” McSally recalled. “You know what I said? Are you married? Not because I wanted to date him! Because I wanted to know if he had a wife who could max out, too!”

Taking on politics

In her new career, it’s a great day when an attack ad is launched against you. It means somebody has decided it’s worth spending money to defeat you.

“I was . . . ooo, I’m almost a little afraid to look! My first attack ad!” McSally peers through her fingers as she campaigns before a dozen people in the housing business who are meeting at a local restaurant. The room breaks into laughter.

“And then I just had to crack up, because it’s a picture of me with recipe cards. . . . I’m in the kitchen cooking up bad recipes, which is in itself overtly sexist and insulting,” and the women in the room frown and shake their heads.

“I couldn’t tell if I was barefoot, too, they didn’t show my feet,” continues McSally about the ad, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s political action committee.

“But c’mon! Me of all people! I spent 26 years in the military. I was too busy shooting 30mm out of my A-10 at the Taliban and al-Qaeda to even learn to cook!” And then the men all frown and shake their heads vigorously, too.

Long ago, McSally embraced daunting obstacles and accepted there would be distasteful tasks along the way. She gave the nuns trouble in high school and her mother trouble at home, then carried her defiance into the Air Force Academy, where she showed up with her hair an inch shorter than it was required to be.

(And there’s still trouble with that hair. “You wouldn’t believe how many supporters have something to say about how I look. I wear it down, they tell me to put it up,” she said with a laugh. “I pull it back, and they tell me to wear it down.”)

She didn’t decide to become a pilot until she realized that, at 5-foot-3, she was too short.

She badgered for two years to get a waiver and built up her leg muscles. She got a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School before entering flight school, the same year she won the military division of the Hawaiian Ironman World Triathlon.

She sued Rumsfeld after unsuccessfully trying through channels to change the abaya rule, which she insisted violated her religious freedom as an evangelical Christian and discriminated against her gender. She found support from an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal feminists, which she now tells voters proves her ability to forge consensus around principle.

Her own political positions are not so easily categorized. She says her priorities are deficit reduction, economic growth, immigration and tax code reform, and protecting the border, 85 miles of which form the southern edge of her district. She’s antiabortion and supports Title X, a federal program that funds family planning.

The district is a true swing district, with its 376,000 registered voters divided nearly evenly between Republicans, Democrats and independents, and while most race-watchers still favor Barber to win, McSally has made it a tighter race than expected.

She has run mostly on her own biography and an assertion that, as a former commander, she will quickly gather all the pertinent intelligence rather than shooting off her mouth.

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