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Giffords brings DC crowd to its feet with vow she's 'getting better'

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at an EMILY's List event in Washington where a "rising star" award named for her was presented to Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. The list supports Democratic women candidates. (Cronkite News Service photo by Whitney Ogden)

WASHINGTON -- The last time she was at an EMILY's List event in Washington, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was just months removed from a 2011 shooting and unable to speak as she accepted an award from the organization.

But Giffords found her voice this week, bringing hundreds of Democratic women to their feet as she told them "it's been a long, hard haul, but I'm getting better."

With the help of EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, Giffords made her way up the steps to the podium Tuesday night in front of a crowd applauding and cheering, "I love you, Gabby!"

The former Tucson congresswoman, flanked by Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick of Flagstaff and Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix, smiled and waved to the crowd before slowly reading a prepared speech.

Even with slight pauses between each word, she kept the audience cheering after every sentence of her short statement.

Sinema called the close-to-minute-long speech an example of Gifford's "incredible strength."

"She is, without question, our hero," Sinema said.

Kirkpatrick, who introduced Giffords with Sinema, said she has "learned a lot from Gabby, and in recent years, so have millions of young women leaders."

"She has set a new standard for courage, resilience and determination," Kirkpatrick said.

Giffords was in her third term in the House when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at her "Congress on Your Corner" event at a Tucson grocery store. Six people were killed in the shooting spree and 13 wounded, including Giffords and a then-staffer, Ron Barber, who since succeeded her in office.

Giffords, who was shot in the head, was placed in an induced coma after the attack and hospitalized for months during her recovery. She struggled to move and speak for some time and consequently resigned her seat in Congress in January 2012.

Her recovery has been slow, but Sinema said Giffords has made "tremendous progress." With her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, Giffords founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, which aims to prevent gun violence. She has testified before Congress and traveled the country with Kelly in that cause.

Giffords was back in Washington on Tuesday to present a "rising star" award named in her honor to Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, one of three women recognized for their achievements as Democratic leaders.

Also honored were California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who each received a "We are EMILY" award honoring "an extraordinary woman who's made a significant impact in our nation."

EMILY's List -- EMILY stands for "early money is like yeast," in that it "raises dough" -- was created to support Democratic women running for office. It began in 1985 and has since funded and trained thousands of pro-choice women candidates across the country, including Sinema, Kirkpatrick and Giffords.

Sinema said the organization made a "huge difference" in her and Kirkpatrick's 2012 campaigns, and that it is already lending support to her campaign this year.

Giffords, whose speech was the high point of the evening, told the crowd that she has had a difficult recovery and she is still receiving "lots of therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and yoga too."

"But my spirit's strong as ever," she said. "I'm still fighting to make the world a better place."

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