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Ex-Chief of Staff to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Mixes Politics and Whiskey

Pia Carusone co-founded Republic Restoratives, the most political distillery in D.C.

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For Pia Carusone, January 8, 2011, started off like any other Saturday in Washington, D.C. “Let’s say I had a little bit of a late Friday night,” she remembers with a chuckle. As the chief of staff to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a little-known Democrat representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district, Carusone had just watched her boss get sworn in to her third term the previous Wednesday, and things had been decidedly hectic in the lead-up. Besides prepping for the swearing in, Carusone was helping Rep. Giffords and her director of community outreach, Gabe Zimmerman, prepare for the congresswoman’s upcoming appearance at “Congress on Your Corner,” set to take place on that day, the 8th. Set up at a Safeway in Casas Adobes, Arizona, the event was supposed to be sort of a meet-and-greet, where constituents could come up and voice their questions and concerns to the congresswoman directly. “Stop by and let me know what’s on your mind,” Rep. Giffords tweeted that morning.

Then, at about 12 p.m. Eastern Time, Carusone received a phone call that would change her life forever.

Gabrielle Giffords
Emergency personnel and Daniel Hernandez (center), an intern for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), move Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center January 8, 2011 in Casas Adobes, Arizona. (James Palka/Getty Images)

Someone at the event called to tell her that there’d been a shooting there, and Rep. Giffords, along with multiple members of her staff and others in attendance, had been shot. “It took awhile to figure out exactly what happened [and] how grave the situation was,” Carusone recounts to RealClearLife. “For whatever reason, I had assumed it was a non-life-threatening injury to [Giffords]; my brain went to, like, it must be her foot,” she remembers.

As everyone would later learn, a deranged man named Jared Lee Loughner had opened fire at the event, gravely wounding Rep. Giffords, and killing six others, including Zimmerman, a federal judge, and a nine-year-old girl. Dozens were also injured.

But across the country in D.C., Carusone was experiencing the horrific event in real time. “The first 20 or 30 minutes, it was eerily quiet,” she remembers, referring to her cellphone, which would soon spring into action. “I had enough time to make a few calls; I obviously called [Giffords’ husband] Mark [Kelly], got him going to the airport, got a couple things in a suitcase, and then the national news got a hold of it, and I couldn’t even dial an outgoing call on my phone it was ringing so much.”

Pia Carusone
Pia Carusone, chief of staff for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., talks to a colleague in Arizona in the Congresswoman’s Longworth office. Giffords is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head sustained during a shooting rampage in Tucson in January that left six people dead and 13 wounded. (Tom Williams/Roll Call)

To make matters worse, NPR had incorrectly published a breaking news story, reporting that Rep. Giffords died from the gunshot wound to her head. In fact, Carusone had just gotten off the phone with Giffords’ mother, who had told her the congresswoman was still in surgery. Although the media frenzy had barely reached a peak in the hours following the assassination attempt, Carusone tells RCLife that everything got a lot more real when she touched down in Tucson. Flying on a private jet and landing at around 9 p.m. Arizona time, she was picked up at the airport by “heavily, heavily armed” law enforcement officials, she says. The gravity of the situation hit her even harder when she walked into the hospital for the first time that night. She was soon joined by Robert Mueller, the then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “He’s standing there in the ICU with me,” she remembers, “[and] I was like, ‘Holy sh-t, yesterday I was an unknown chief of staff to basically an unknown member of Congress, and now Bob Mueller’s asking me if he can get me anything.” Of course, her phone was still mercilessly ringing off the hook, and she was fielding calls from people like Oprah.

 

In the weeks and months that followed, the then 31-year-old Carusone—who was the youngest female chief of staff appointed by a Congressperson—would receive high praise for her ability to handle the tough task of heading up Rep. Giffords’ staff following the tragedy. She became a familiar face and hyper-intelligent voice on national television. “I guess I’ve always had a way of handling high pressure or crises that I don’t know that I was ever taught,” she says of that time period. In delegating tasks, Carusone said she “made sure to evoke Gabby as often as possible”; she wanted to run things how she felt Rep. Giffords might have had she been there in the room. And of course, there was the loss of staffer Zimmerman. “He was a big, social part of our team,” Carusone says, explaining that he was sorely missed. (Two other staffers, including Ronald Barber, were shot in the attack; Barber would go on to succeed Giffords in the U.S. House of Representatives.)

One can’t imagine that any of this was altogether easy for Carusone, but she gives an unequivocal “no” when asked if the shooting and its aftermath made her want to quit politics. “I really do fundamentally believe that the institution we all pay tax dollars to can actually do quite a lot,” she explains. “I’m sort of a basic believer.”

In January 2012, almost exactly a year from the attempt on her life, Rep. Giffords announced that she’d be retiring from Congress. Which left Carusone without a job. After a brief stint at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), she became a political consultant, and was the founding executive director for the Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, a lobby group seeking to change the national conversation on gun control through advocacy/lobbying, a Super PAC, and a nonprofit organization.

Rachel Gardner and Pia Carusone
(left to right) Republic Restoratives co-founders Rachel Gardner and Pia Carusone. (Courtesy of Pia Carusone)

And while Carusone has clearly not shrugged off politics completely, she has found the perfect antidote to a long, complex career in Washington: the booze business. Around the time she left the DHS, Carusone co-founded Republic Restoratives, a liquor distillery located in D.C., with childhood friend Rachel Gardner. (National Football League spokesman Joe Lockhart and his wife are among investors.) “It turns out Washington is one of the highest consuming liquor markets in the country,” Carusone explains, footnoting that it’s the No. 1 market for bourbon. Carusone believes that the numbers are representative of the culture surrounding D.C. politics—that, in a sense, a good cocktail is integral to the policymaking process. “There’s lots of parties and events in this town all the time,” she explains. And it doesn’t hurt that Carusone has loads of political contacts from throughout her career that need venues just like hers. “We have members of Congress in here all the time,” Carusone tells us, not naming any specific names. (Although D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser celebrated a birthday there—and even served as Carusone’s officiant at her wedding this past June.) “We have not had President Obama or Vice President Biden—two people on my goal list,” notes Carusone. And not missing a beat, deadpans: “Although I think everyone here really just wants to see Michelle Obama.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton
(left to right) Republic Restoratives co-founder Pia Carusone presents the first bottle of Rodham Rye to the whiskey’s namesake, Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Courtesy of Pia Carusone)

In terms of product, Republic Restoratives launched with three brands—Civic VodkaBorough Bourbon; and Rodham Rye, a specially blended rye whiskey bottled in honor of one-time presidential candidate and noted whiskey lover Hillary Rodham Clinton. (A fourth brand, Chapman’s Apple Brandy, is imminent.) “We were looking ahead to what we thought would be a historic inauguration—[and] it was still historic in some ways—but not in the way we thought,” admits Carusone. The distillery didn’t release the brand until about a week after the election, but did so, because there was clearly demand for the $79 bottle. Has Clinton tried her namesake rye? “I don’t know that she’s tried it, but I was able to give her bottle No. 1,” says Carusone.

Republic Restoratives
A look at the inside of Republic Restoratives distillery. (Courtesy of Pia Carusone)

What about the other guy? Might Carusone be open to serving the president of the United States? “No,” she says, quite bluntly, only to backpedal ever so slightly. That doesn’t mean she won’t open her doors to Republicans, that is. In fact, she readily admits that she grew up in a Republican family and community in Saratoga Springs, New York, where this writer hails from originally (Carusone and I were neighbors, friends, and schoolmates as children). “I have no problem with Republicans,” she says. “I have a problem with people that disrespect whole classes of people,” seemingly referring to President Trump and some of his supporters. “I said during the inauguration, if people show up here with a red hat that says ‘Make America Great Again’ [on it], that’s fine. If they say a f—ing word about anybody and are a d—k in my bar, I will throw them out!” The same would go for a belligerent Hillary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders hat-wearer, she says. So, yes, booze is apolitical—as long as you aren’t too liberal with the hate-speech or conservative with the love.