UPDATE 4/12/13: Giffords Ex-Chief of Staff Back on Team to Fight for Gun Control
UPDATE: 10/24/12–The Hill’s 25 Women to Watch
UPDATE: 12/4/11–Giffords Aide Pia Carusone Takes Command of Office
By Pamela Burke/April 7, 2011
Right now Pia Carusone has one tough and demanding job in Washington, DC, as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ Chief of Staff. Since the Tucson tragedy in January when Giffords was critically wounded by a gunshot to the head, Pia’s office has been handling the needs of the people her boss represents in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.
Along with this, the staff has been dealing with the loss of one of their own, the steady barrage of media questions, and the public’s concern about Gabby’s condition.
“The experience has been the most difficult and emotional one that I’ve ever gone through.” Pia
An added daily pressure is the historic final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour at the end of the month commanded by Gabby’s husband, Capt. Mark Kelly.
So far Pia’s holding steady. This 30-year-old keeps a low profile and gives most of the credit to the incredible group she and Giffords work with in DC and Tucson.
After seeing Giffords’ remarkable day by day recovery, I was looking forward to talking to Pia about dealing with the stress of her job, holding the office together, and the strength of her courageous boss…
EYE: It’s been three months now since the tragedy in Tucson. How would you describe these last few months as Congresswoman Giffords’ Chief of Staff?
PIA: The experience has been the most difficult and emotional one that I’ve ever gone through. Fortunately I’ve never had a tragedy like this in my own life. It’s also been moments like this that you realize how wonderful the people around you are. Gabby has always been very impressed and proud of our team.
I feel proud and honored to work with these guys. Since this has happened, we’ve gone through a lot together. We’ve mourned the loss of a colleague, a friend, and had to respond to the tragedy as a Congressional office would, especially the Tucson-based office.
The Congresswoman loves her hometown a lot. In the name of honoring the community and doing what we can to help people through this, we had to get to work fairly immediately after this happened. It’s just been a really difficult and trying experience for all of us.
“You end up knowing your colleagues really well especially when something like this happens…”
EYE: What is the secret of keeping an office like this together?Tell me about Team Giffords.
PIA: That’s the casual name we sometimes use. We are a family. The closest offices on the Hill operate like a family. That’s probably true of a lot of good work places. We work long hours together; we are very collaborative; and the result is knowing each other more closely than if you had a more independent atmosphere.
You end up knowing your colleagues really well especially when something like this happens because emotional barriers are often removed when you’re collectively going through something like loss of a colleague.
EYE: Is the office in Tucson a place to congregate and comfort people as well as do official business?
PIA: After the shooting we made the decision to open the office on Monday, January 10, for a couple reasons. That’s what Gabby as well as Gabe Zimmerman would have wanted. As the founder of our constituency program, his life’s work was taking care of people and helping them. That’s why he got so much satisfaction from his job. He got to come to work every day and do what he loved the most.
We had hundreds of cases open and needed to get back to doing what we do, to try to make life better for people. We knew there would be an outpouring of community reaction that was in part involving us, so we prepared for that. We had extra hands on deck to help with influx of people.
The first couple of days there were hundreds of people streaming in at any moment with flowers, gifts, and cookies. There still is. People continue to offer anything they can.
EYE: What was one of the low points? Certainly there was one when you didn’t know Rep. Giffords’ condition.
PIA: After the initial phone call of me finding out about the tragedy, it was learning of Gabe’s death. He was one of the most caring and hardest working people you will ever meet.
EYE: You were with Gabby when she opened her eyes for the first time after the shooting. Was that an incredible high point of the past few months?
PIA: Absolutely, the Wednesday after. Being there for that was amazing. The interesting part is that of all the people who were shot, Gabby was in the worse condition of the survivors. I’m not trying to diminish other injuries, but she was the only one who was tenuous.
That was always interesting to us. She has gotten better almost every day since this has happened. That has created this sort of positive overlay every day. It’s awful what happened. We will never forget that. But when there is continuous positive news coming out of the hospital and her medical team, that helps us get through this.
“In this office Gabby set the tone from day one.”
EYE: The positive attitude surrounding Congresswoman Giffords has almost a kind of effervescence and is something for people to learn from. It seems to penetrate your whole office.
PIA: I do know what you mean. That can only be attributed to Gabby. Leadership starts at the top and it’s certainly true in this case. In this office Gabby set the tone from day one. I’ve been with the team for over two years.
Everyone who has spent time here either as a current or former employee still holds that feeling of eternal optimism and respect for the job of public service. That’s what we’re here to do. That’s who she is.
EYE: Do you keep a low profile? I don’t read very much publicity about you.
PIA: I don’t have reason to have a higher profile. I have my own personal interests. I’m on the Board of Governors of Bard College. I don’t spend a lot of time promoting myself.
EYE: How do you deal with the working relationship with your boss? It has to be a unique one.
PIA: When I’m in Houston, I see her every day. I go to the hospital generally in the evening when she’s got time to chat and update her on what’s going on. We’ll have visitors come through.
EYE: Do you do business at that time?
PIA: Increasingly she can participate in those kinds of conversations. It’s getting better every day. Fortunately we haven’t had to make many decisions that I was concerned that she may have an opinion I wasn’t aware of.
On most issues it’s been clear what the right answer is. She is increasingly able to participate in decisions. I look forward to getting back to sharing more of that process with her.
EYE: Is she able to carry on much of a conversation?
PIA: Yes, and it’s getting better. She’s working very hard. It’s grueling. It’s why she’s there but it’s a rigorous program. Folks have been great at TIRR Memorial Hermann.
“Chances are good that she will be at the launch.”
EYE: Do you have any idea how long she’ll be there?
PIA: They don’t know yet.
EYE: Are you still thinking that it is possible for her to go to the launch in April?
PIA: Yes, I do. Doctors still have to give their final OK. Chances are good that she will be at the launch. We’ll know shortly before he goes up.
“It’s a big moment. She’s very proud of him and wouldn’t want to miss this.”
EYE: Is she looking forward to it?
PIA: Very much so. She always looks forward to his launches. She went to his launch in 2006 and 2008. This is Mark’s fourth shuttle flight and one of the last space shuttle missions. It’s a big moment. Gabby’s very proud of him and wouldn’t want to miss this launch.
EYE: Are Mark and Gabby happy that they have more time now that the launch has been pushed back to the end of the month?
PIA: Not really. They’ve been looking forward to this for about a year and a half. When you spend all this time gearing up for the big moment, it gets disappointing when there’s a delay.
EYE: How do you prepare for the media?
PIA: The media is just an added impact on all of us. None of us is used to having this kind of attention either on ourselves personally or our boss. We understand why though. Fortunately we have a great team that can process the requests and do the best we can to answer questions and respect her privacy at the same time.
EYE: I saw a photo of you with the President signing a bill in February to name the new federal courthouse in Yuma after Judge John M. Roll. Was that quite a moment for you?
PIA: Yes. Standing in the Oval Office when the President signs a bill into law is a great moment for anyone. Judge Roll was a man whom we all worked with closely. I personally would email him a couple of times a month or speak to him. Getting the courthouse named after him was the right thing to do, and we’re really glad that we were able to help get it done.
EYE: I’d like to ask a few questions about yourself. Did you always want to be involved in politics?
PIA: No. I never had political ambitions even in college. I didn’t really think I’d be involved in American politics. I studied International Relations and Human Rights. I was more interested in the AIDS pandemic and things like that. But when I got out of college in 2003 I really wanted to find a job that could marry my passion to what I wanted to spend my waking hours doing.
I wanted to make sure that when I woke up until the time I went to bed that I was doing something I wanted to do. That summer political campaigns were starting up. There were a lot of important issues that caught my interest.
“…it became clear to me in New Hampshire how important it is to elect good people.”
EYE: What was your first job in politics?
PIA: Right out of college it was with Howard Dean. That was my first time working on a campaign. It was in the Manchester, New Hampshire headquarters.
I started out briefly as an intern for six weeks, then I was hired on staff for the remainder of the campaign. It was great. I tell anyone who wants to get a job in politics to go to Iowa or New Hampshire. No matter what party you’re in or what your interests are, you will come out of it learning way more than you could ever imagine. It’s the training ground for candidates and people in the business.
EYE: Were you bitten by the bug then?
PIA: I’d say so. When you’re in college you learn about how laws are made and about how policy affects our daily life, but it became clear to me in New Hampshire how important it is to elect good people. I saw how these elections happened. It saw the full spectrum from start to finish. It starts out with New Hampshire, and by winning that state candidates can win the nomination and then the Presidency.
“Gabby is known as one of the best people to work for on the Hill.”
EYE: What was the path to Gabby?
PIA: From New Hampshire I went to Boston to work on a state representative’s race. Then I worked for John Kerry in the general election, and after that in 2006, I managed John Sarbanes’ campaign in Baltimore.
For the 2008 elections I moved back and worked for the New Hampshire Democratic Party during the primary. I did all their press and communications which was very exciting. I went on to manage one of the most contested House races in the country. We ended up winning which was great. That certainly helped me with this job.
I was looking for work in DC after the campaign ended and fortunately Gabby was looking for a chief of staff. A friend introduced us and one thing led to another. It certainly was a great opportunity to meet her. It was a long shot. Gabby is known as one of the best people to work for on the Hill. She has a great personality and that makes all the difference, so I lucked out. And so far so good.
EYE: I read where you hoped something good would come out of this tragedy. Has it?
PIA: Yes, no doubt good has come, but the question is how long will it last. The University of Arizona started a Civility Institute. That’s a great example of an opportunity that might not have been available before this incident occurred. Now the country seems to have more of an appetite for enforcing civility in politics. I hope that in the next election we see the public call out their candidates if they are inappropriate in their language use.
There’s been a real focus on Gabe’s cause and what social workers do. There are scholarship opportunities now that weren’t there before. All these sort of reactions to the event are great. Can they be something in 50 or 100 years that came about because of this tragic event? We certainly hope so.
EYE: Do you see staying for a long time with your present job? Gabby’s got a long road ahead. And there’s speculation that she’ll run again, maybe even for the Senate.
EYE: Mark is such a strong force in her life. He seems to be such a decisive and kind human being.
PIA: He’s terrific. We’ve gotten to know each other more. She’s lucky to have him, and he’s lucky to have her. He’s been everything you’d want in this situation. He’s supportive, calm, smart, kind, and compassionate.
EYE: Gabby is such a fighter. What can we learn from her? Her resiliency has been incredible.
PIA: I think for people who are enduring challenges whether medical or otherwise, she’s showing that you have to dig deep. Sometimes you’re sad and feel you can’t go on anymore. We all have those moments including her. But Gabby has that eternal attitude that you can’t ever give up. That’s one of life’s biggest lessons, but it’s nice when there’s a reminder.
EYE: What does she laugh at?
PIA: She laughs at whatever we all laugh at. She jokes around and laughs with Mark and her family. She’s getting excited for the launch. This is the time when everyone gets anxious. It’s coming up. It’s a big deal. We’re all looking forward to it.
EYE: Pia, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. It’s a huge deal, and everyone I know is rooting for all of you!
Photographs of Pia, Rep. Giffords, Gabe Zimmerman, and the staff were provided by Rep. Giffords’ office. Thanks to the staff for their assistance.