Mark Kelly Opens Up on His Role in the Senate and Life with Wife Gabby Giffords

The former astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain was elected in 2020 to fill the Arizona Senate seat once held by John McCain

Democratic Senate Candidate Mark Kelly Holds Election Night Event In Tucson
Sen. Mark Kelly. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty

Mark Kelly's first trip abroad as a U.S. senator focused largely on national security amid Russia's continued invasion of Ukraine — but for the Democrat, former astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain, the trip was also deeply personal.

The first stop on the nine-day tour of Europe and Asia, which Kelly took along with other congressional leaders, was to Poland to meet with Arizona service members, Ukrainian refugees, foreign leaders and American embassy staff.

"We met with the 82nd Airborne which, for me was good for a number of reasons: For one, we got a brief about what is actually happening in Ukraine," Kelly, 58, said in a recent interview. "I served for 25 years, so I'm pretty familiar — having been somebody who flew airplanes in combat."

He continues: "It was mostly about national security, but the other thing that was kind of a big deal to me is that my dad served in the 82nd Airborne before I was born."

Speaking to PEOPLE via Zoom, Kelly holds up a black-and-white photo he displays in his office, showing his dad parachuting from the sky.

"He was a paratrooper," Kelly says. "I always tell people, when I see the patch, I tell them, 'Hey my dad was in the 82nd.' "

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Mark Kelly with members of the 82nd Airborne in Poland. Office of Senator Kelly

Kelly — who is currently running for re-election in a closely watched Arizona race that could help decide the balance of power in Congress — says his international trip also allowed him to connect with service members who are assisting Ukraine in an attack that, so far, has no end.

"They're there for an indefinite amount of time, making sure that we assist the Ukrainian military without having this turn into a larger conflict," Kelly says.

Back home in Arizona and at his office in Washington, D.C., Kelly has other areas of focus.

"When you're elected to the U.S. Congress, you're here to support the American people and figure out policies and spending and figure out issues so important to the functioning of the economy. You're not here to make money for yourself," Kelly says, noting that he put his own assets in a blind trust before he was even sworn in.

He ties that into his pitch to voters, including backing new limits on lawmakers making stock trades.

"I'm the only person in Congress, of 535 members ... that has a qualified blind trust, public schedule and did not take corporate [political action committee] money. These are three things that I think are really important, in order to be transparent and ethical and at the same time not allow yourself to be … influenced," Kelly says.

While he acknowledges that banning lawmakers from making stock trades is popular, he says it's not something he hears about from his constituents. The legislation, he says, is more about doing what's right.

"Nobody came to me and said, 'This is a good idea.' It's not something people are focused on. They are more focused on the cost of things, which has been going up."

He continues: "But we shouldn't just be doing things because we hear folks in our communities talk about them. We also need to look for opportunities to do the right thing."

Doing the "right thing" — rather than jut what's popular or what might most resonate with voters — has long been on Kelly's priority list, he says.

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Senator Kelly at the annual Tour De Tucson event with his wife (middle), his twin brother Scott Kelly (right), and his sister-in-law Amiko Kelly (left). The group rode 28 miles alongside thousands of other cyclists; November 19, 2021. Mark Kelly for Senate Campaign

The former member of NASA — who has flown in four space missions, including the final mission of Space Shuttle Endeavour — is married to former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot and nearly killed in 2011.

Since that mass shooting, Kelly has been increasingly vocal about stopping gun violence, even while campaigning in Arizona, one of the most gun-friendly states in the country.

While on the campaign trail, Kelly was quick to note that he believes in gun ownership and is a gun owner himself — but he also supports measures to more strenuously regulate firearms.

That message resonated with voters in 2020, when Kelly was first elected to Congress after flipping the Senate seat held by Republican Martha McSally.

A forthcoming documentary — Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down, out in July — tells the story of how Kelly and Giffords rebuilt their lives in the years after she was shot.

"We were both interviewed for it and they filmed Gabby especially, and it will be released in 300 theaters," Kelly says of the film.

Though she was recently in the hospital with appendicitis issues, Giffords is now "doing great," her husband says.

"She keeps very busy, she travels a lot, she's working really hard," he says. "She gets on her recumbent bike every day, sometimes even for up to a couple of hours."

Kelly, meanwhile, has created his own niche in D.C., where he says he tries to go to concerts or go to dinner with a core group of friendly fellow senators who live nearby on Capitol Hill, including Tina Smith, John Hickenlooper and Kirsten Gillibrand.

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Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords with the band Calexico. Gabby Giffords/Twitter

When home in Arizona, meanwhile, he and Giffords connect via dinners out or the occasional concert — such as when the two went to see their favorite band, Calexico, perform in 2019. The band is from Kelly's home city of Tucson Kelly has heard a lot of them over the years. Literally: In 2008, he asked Giffords to pick his "wake-up call" song — a tradition in which an astronaut picks a song that will be played to wake up everyone on board. Giffords chose Calexico's "Crystal Frontier" for Kelly and the other astronauts onboard Space Shuttle Discovery.

Giffords often plays music at home, too, Kelly says.

"She did something recently with Yo-Yo Ma," he says. "She can play the French horn pretty well. She can belt out just about any '80s song."

Even as the couple enjoys life's blessings — they welcomed their first grandchild last May — Kelly easily recalls what it feels like to face challenges.

"It's not an easy road," he says. "I often try to remind myself that there are things we can control and other times, bad stuff happens to good people for no reason."

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