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 both Giffords and Barber are held in good esteem by many in the district, 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.
"I'm not a politician, never run for office before, so I'm taking this one step at a time," Barber said. "And the first step is to get petitions to get me on the ballot for the primary in April and then for the general in June."
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. They moved back to the U.S. in 1959. Barber met his wife, Nancy, in high school in Tucson when both were 15. They've been married for 44 years.
The couple has two grown daughters, one a nurse at the hospital where he was treated and one a pre-school administrator in Tucson, and four grandchildren.
A former administrator in a state office of developmental disabilities, he retired in 2006 to work for Giffords.
A month after the shooting, Barber set up a nonprofit to support the shooting's survivors and first responders as well as reduce bullying in schools and increase awareness of mental health symptoms. Mental health experts say the shooting suspect suffers from schizophrenia.
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.
Politically, Barber promised to champion the issues that his boss did, 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 talked before he decided to run, and he knows that stepping into the political world has its hazards.
"I don't think you let something like that stop the democratic process," he said. Then he added, "So I'll be out there. I think it's the right thing to do."