I never met Gabe Zimmerman, but I knew him.
The 30-year-old aide to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who died in the service of his country Saturday morning is no stranger to me or anyone who has stood in his shoes.
Without having met Mr. Zimmerman, I can tell you that he rarely had a day off; that he worked all week helping constituents get their social security checks, file for veterans services and communicate with their Member of Congress; that weekends were spent accompanying the congresswoman around the district and nights more often found him at city council meetings than hanging out with friends.
I can tell you that his job came up before the voters every two years so it was hard to think too far into the future, that he lived by limits set by House ethics rules on things that are commonplace for everyone else -- like getting tickets to a game from a friend or letting someone buy you a drink and, still, he considered this the best job he ever had.
I can tell you that Gabe didn't dwell often on the chance of getting hurt while serving the congresswoman, but the thought that it was possible was never far away.
That threat was well known in the office where I worked. My boss, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, still carries a bullet in her body from when she was shot six times while serving as an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan who was killed by followers of Jim Jones and the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.
Like other Democratic offices, we received all sort of nasty calls and comments during the health care debate, especially when the Tea Party folks were being prodded to do exactly that by politicians and Fox News. And while we knew that most of the talk was just talk, the threats were bided nonetheless.
When an angry man at a townhall meeting pushed a sign in my face that said, "I left my guns at home... this time," I didn't take that as just a witty phrase he randomly chose for his sign. I took that to mean that if I see him at another event, I should assume he's armed. It would be one thing if this was a fringe character shunned by the mainstream of his group, but this guy is the mainstream! He is exactly who Sarah Palin is appealing to with her graphic of rifle scopes being pointed at Democratic congressional districts. He is the audience Sharron Angle speaks to when she suggests that "second amendment remedies" are available if elections don't work out.
It has always been popular -- and way too easy -- to denigrate people in public service. But there is not a community in America that isn't better off because of the hard work of some unknown staffer putting in long hours for modest pay to help get funding for a school, protect a natural resource or make sure that a local veteran gets the benefits she is owed.
Gabe Zimmerman did this, and much more, every day he worked for Congresswoman Giffords. I never met Gabe, but I knew him -- as does anyone who has ever attended a town hall meeting, needed help with a last minute passport request or made sure your mother was properly signed up for Medicare.
In many parts of our country, it has become a condition of running for office that you be personally wealthy. Democracy takes an even greater hit when the requirement for simply working for a member of Congress is that you are willing to risk your life.
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