By BOB CHRISTIE and PAUL DAVENPORT, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Ron Barber was always the behind-the-scenes man for his boss, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Then he was shot, when a gunman opened fire on the congresswoman and others at a Tucson grocery store as Barber ushered constituents to meet her. Over the year since, he became one of the most visible faces of the tragedy.
Now, he's taking one more step into the spotlight, asking voters in Giffords' southern Arizona district to elect him to replace her in Congress after she stepped down last month to focus on recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.
"I feel like I've been given a second chance at life, you know, and I'm not going to squander it for one second," he said.
Barber announced Thursday that he will seek the Democratic nomination in the special election being held this spring. He said he hasn't decided yet if he'll seek a full two-year term in November.
Giffords asked him to run in the special election, he said. She and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, endorsed him and asked supporters to donate to his campaign, saying "Ron is a leader who puts politics aside and brings people together."
The endorsement could help Democrats keep the seat because many in the district hold both Giffords and Barber in high regard, said William Dixon, a University of Arizona political science professor.
"The Republicans are going to have a real hard time with this endorsement," he said.
Barber likely would be a strong candidate for a full term, Dixon said. Even if he doesn't run in the fall, his endorsement and one by Giffords would provide potent support for another Democratic candidate, he said.
If Barber wins the April 17 primary, he'll face one of five Republicans vying for the GOP nomination. The special general election will be held on June 12.
One other Democrat, state Rep. Matt Heinz, had announced his run for the seat. With Barber's announcement, Heinz said Thursday he will respect Giffords' support for Barber in the special election and now only run for a full term.
"I will refocus my efforts for the fall," Heinz said.
Barber didn't rule out a run in the general election.
A National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman responded to Barber's announcement by saying voters are entitled to a full debate on border security and economic issues.
"No one wanted this special election to happen, but it comes at a time when Arizona and our country are at a critical crossroads," NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said.
Now 66, Barber was born in Yorkshire, England, to an American serviceman father and an English mother.
One thing that he remembered about growing up across the Atlantic was watching American Westerns, and his parents telling him that the family would be moving in 1959 to Tucson, the rugged Old West.
"It was like a dream come true," he told The Associated Press in March.
Barber met his wife, Nancy, in high school when both were 15. They've been married for 44 years.
"It's still going strong," he said. They have two grown daughters and four grandchildren.
For 32 years, Barber worked for the state, helping people with developmental disabilities and mental illness. He retired and volunteered on Giffords' campaign. After her win in 2006, he became head of her Tucson office, helping constituents far from the glare of Washington, D.C.
Since the shooting, Barber has invited reporters into his home for interviews as he recovered, speaking of his friend, U.S. District Judge John Roll, who pushed him under a folding table as the gunman opened fire.
Roll was among the six people killed. Thirteen people, including Giffords and Barber, were wounded.
While Barber was in the hospital, where a daughter is a nurse, he began thinking of ways to salvage some good out of the tragedy. He started a nonprofit to support the survivors, reduce bullying and increase awareness about mental health.
Mental health experts say the shooting suspect suffers from schizophrenia.
The reaction to the shooting was "a moment when our community said we are about good things, not bad things," he said last year. "And there's positive energy that still exists here."
Barber, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, has spent much of the past year undergoing extensive physical and emotional therapy.
Now, he's about to try to follow in his old boss's footsteps.
He said he will champion her issues, including veteran services and the two southern Arizona military bases and border security. He also vowed to work to stop foreclosures, and balance the budget without harming Social Security and Medicare.
Barber said he and his family are mindful about the hazards of politics, but that they won't stop him.
"I'll be out there," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do."
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