WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat battling for her life after being shot in the head on Saturday, was an effective behind-the-scenes leader in 2009 efforts to restore rejected General Motors and Chrysler dealerships.
Giffords, 40, was one of about 10 lawmakers who sought from the beginning to get the automakers to halt termination of 2,000 dealerships following the companies' bankruptcies.
She was an original sponsor of the June 2009 bill that would have reversed the store closures and appeared at two press conferences outside the Capitol seeking to push the legislation, said Tamara Darvish, a co-leader of the Committee to Restore Dealer Rights, a group representing rejected dealers.
“We didn't have to lobby her -- she got it,” said Darvish, a Silver Spring, Md.-based dealer. “She was very pro-business.”
Giffords, a third-generation Arizonan, took over her family's tire dealership in Tucson in 1996 before selling it in 2000. She was elected to Congress in 2006.
The lawmaker was shot along with 19 others at a constituent gathering outside Tucson. She remains in critical condition at the University of Arizona's University Medical Center in Tucson.
GM dealer reinstated
In the summer of 2009, the rejected-dealer legislation co-sponsored by Giffords passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
Meanwhile, a dealership in Giffords's district, Don Mackey Cadillac-Pontiac-GMC of Tucson, was one of those marked for termination by GM.
As soon as she learned of GM's plan, the lawmaker visited Mackey's dealership and met with all its employees, said Bobbi Sparrow, president of the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association.
Giffords asked GM to explain why it wanted to close a successful dealership.
“It flies in the face of how our market economy is supposed to function,” Giffords said in June 2009. “In America we reward success -- we don't penalize it.”
GM reinstated Mackey's dealership the next month.
“It was only because of the efforts of Gabrielle Giffords and her office and her tenacity,” Mackey told a Tucson TV station at the time.
Said Sparrow: “She took it personally that someone was closing a dealership in her district.”
Mackey later sold the store for business reasons, Sparrow said.
GM-Chrysler dealer talks
Back in Washington, Giffords and several other lawmakers, led by then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., were meeting with GM and Chrysler to try to get them to negotiate a compromise with dealers.
“She was always very prepared and a very effective advocate for the argument that the termination process was unfair,” said then-Rep. Frank Kratovil, a Maryland Democrat who was among the leading dealer advocates.
In the fall of 2009, the key parties -- GM, Chrysler, the National Automobile Dealers Association and the Committee to Restore Dealer Rights -- agreed to try to hash out a compromise as an alternative to legislation.
Giffords was one of a few lawmakers who appeared at the first meeting in the Capitol, said Darvish, who also was there.
The lawmakers and their staff came to show support for a possible settlement and to convey to the companies that Congress would move forward if no agreement were reached, she said.
In the end, GM and Chrysler withdrew from the talks and offered proposals that the lawmakers considered inadequate.
Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., pushed through legislation to create an arbitration process for rejected GM and Chrysler dealerships.
President Obama signed the bill in December 2009. More than a quarter of the 2,789 rejected GM and Chrysler dealerships were restored last year.
Said Sparrow about Giffords: “She understands an issue very quickly, she wants to help you, she wants to be there for you -- and she always was.”