VenueThe Cup Café at Hotel Congress
311 East Congress Street
The Tab(1) Diet Coke
(1) iced tea
(1) French toast
(1) “croque señor”
$18.75 + tip
Near the end of our lunch at Cup Café in downtown Tucson, Daniel Hernandez tells me that the restaurant’s patio, where we’re sitting now, is one of the last places he saw former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords before January 8, 2011. That was the day Hernandez, then a senior at the University of Arizona, become a national hero by running into gunfire to save Giffords’ life. But before then, here at Cup Café, Hernandez accidentally blew off the congresswoman while she was sitting by the same table where we’ve been eating for the past hour.
He and his sister were exiting the restaurant when Giffords, who was dining with her husband and parents at a nearby table, “stood up to give me a hug, and I just kept walking.” Hernandez says he didn’t realize he’d ignored Giffords, whom he first met when he worked on her 2008 reelection campaign, until his sister slapped him, and told him they had to turn back. Hernandez sheepishly tells me they had to walk around the entire restaurant again so he could go back for that hug.
Now, there are a lot more people stopping the tall, teddy bear-like Hernandez for hugs or to say hello. He’s been profiled, fêted, thanked, and interviewed. He’s been touted as an inspiration by no less than President Obama. While we’re talking, a journalist who interviewed him last year stops by to ask for his email address for a follow-up interview. Hernandez, who is busy enough to have a scheduler, obliges without a second thought, making sure that his email address is decipherable despite his bad handwriting. He gets stopped in airports and stared at more regularly than he wants to admit, though he does enjoy telling me the story of a group of African-American Southern Baptist church singers who waited for him outside an airport bathroom, then asked him to pose for a photo. “As time has gone on people are a little more hesitant,” he tells me. “I get a lot more double-takes and people who just stare.”
Hernandez’s is a strange, accidental celebrity. He’s been on so many interviews that he thinks he’s gotten asked every possible question (though even he was thrown by a journalist who wanted to know how long it took for the blood on his clothing to get crusty). A year later, people approach him and try to figure out where they know him from. (He’s been asked “Are you David Fernandez?” as well as “Are you in a band?”) Hernandez prefers not to explain things when people can’t place him, saying that he doesn’t like being the center of attention.
But he has taken advantage of his unexpected celebrity to promote education and LGBT advocacy. “There’s this weird cognitive disconnect,” he explains. “I keep doing things that keep getting more attention, but I do them because it’s for a good reason or for a good cause.”
In addition to speaking all over the country (he tells me he “lived out of a suitcase” for most of last summer), Hernandez was elected to the school board of the Sunnyside Unified School District in South Tucson, where he grew up and went to school.
Hernandez describes himself as a “political news junkie,” and he’s something of a Doogie Howser when it comes to elected office. He was already a campaign veteran when he started interning in Giffords’ office on January 3, 2011 (earlier than planned because many students were still out of town on break). He tells me he got into politics because he’s always admired strong women, and he volunteered for Hilary Clinton in 2007. In 2008, he worked on Giffords’ campaign for reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 2010 he managed a state legislative race. In college, he was part of the student-run nonprofit Arizona Students’ Association, advocating for more accessible higher education.
“I know what I’m doing, and I’ve had a lot of experience in education policy,” he tells me. “I’m just really lucky that I have a good background in what I’m doing, so I’m not just doing it because of the attention that I received.” He’s told me he doesn’t think he’ll be a public figure forever, although it seems to come naturally–he’s answered any questions about being an opportunist before I can ask them.
On the school board, Hernandez’s focus is on battling budget cuts to save all-day kindergarten and promote technical education so that students who don’t go to college can be prepared for jobs other than minimum-wage positions. Most of his colleagues on the board are in their 60s, and his second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-grade teachers walked door-to-door in support of his campaign. (My question about why he lost the support of his sixth-grade teacher falls flat when he tells me that some of his former teachers are dead.)
Hernandez is also happy to be a role model for students in a district where many don’t go on to college. Still, he acknowledges that his colleagues on the board and others were “freaked out” by his election. He’s one of the people responsible for the hiring and firing of the teachers whose classrooms he sat in just five years ago. “I’ve had a few people tell me it’s really weird to have a 22-year-old boss,” he says. Not to mention one who’s still in college. Hernandez will graduate this spring with a political science degree.
Even as an elected official with his own scheduler, though, Hernandez is ultimately in the same position as many college seniors: he’s trying to figure out what to do next. The school board doesn’t pay, but it’ll keep him close to home for at least the next three years. Plus, he wants to stay in Arizona, at least for now. “Arizona’s had its quirks and its ups and downs,” he says, admitting that he gets hassled for the state’s politics when he travels. But “I can’t imagine really being anywhere else right now.”
After he’s finished his French toast and we’ve swatted away the bees that are swarming around our drinks (one has crawled into the straw in Hernandez’s Diet Coke), we circle back to Giffords, who has been rehabilitating in Houston for the past year. Hernandez has seen her twice since the shooting. On her last day in Arizona as a member of Congress, Giffords and many of her former staffers returned to the Safeway where last year’s “Congress on Your Corner” event was cut short by the tragedy. “It brought a lot of closure for a lot of the people who were there,” he says.
For his part, though, Hernandez didn’t feel the need to look for closure. “I’ve dealt with things very differently than some of the other folks.” He went to a counselor a handful of times, but stopped going. “She said there was nothing else she could tell me or do,” he recalls, “because I was already doing everything she would tell me to do.”
I come away from our meeting wondering what’s next for Hernandez. Will he stay in Arizona, or head somewhere else, like Washington? He’s certain that the attention will die down, and he’s undoubtedly right. But he’ll always be known as the guy who saved Gabrielle Giffords’ life. I suspect he’ll also be known for a lot more.
Sarah Rothbard is managing & books editor of Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo by Sarah Rothbard.