Friday, October 20, 2006

Race For State Senate Seat Handicapped By Pundits

From A Wheelchair, Democratic Contender Seeks To Roll Old-Time GOPer Into Political Grave

Brooke Ellison, the exuberant Harvard grad, has never taken anything sitting down, not even her physical confinement to a wheelchair since being struck by a car on her way to school at age 11.

Now, Brooke takes up a challenge of another, yet no less noble kind -- to unseat veteran Republican State Senator Caesar Trunzo, who, for 35 years, has confined himself to his legislative seat in Albany.

The New York Times reports on Brooke's campaign, and the real challange of bringing true reform to the New York State Legislature.

Brooke Ellison commands a host of endorsements, and The Community Alliance, in its first endorsement of this election season, is proud to join that list.

Meanwhile, in other political news, former NYC Mayor, Ed "How'm I Doin'" Koch, has endorsed the re-election bid of Congressman Peter King. Yet another reason NOT to vote for King on November 7th!

Paralyzed, 28, and Aiming for the State Senate


SETAUKET, N.Y. — Brooke M. Ellison, the Democratic challenger for a State Senate seat here, displays an oversize button on her lapel with her slogan, “Overcoming challenges for New York.” Her television commercial opens with close-ups of her talking about those challenges — in health care, schools and the environment.

Then the camera pulls back to reveal the biggest challenge that Ms. Ellison, who turns 28 on Friday, has overcome so far, showing the motorized wheelchair she uses because she is paralyzed from the neck down.

The current challenge for Ms. Ellison — who was injured in a car accident as a child and went on to graduate from Harvard with honors and to jointly write a book that Christopher Reeve made the basis for a movie about her life — is to unseat John J. Flanagan, a Republican who has been in the State Legislature for 20 years.

Because of Ms. Ellison’s personal narrative, along with the changing political environment here on Long Island, local Democratic leaders say she is one of their best hopes for an upset on Nov. 7. They are also aiming for the adjacent seat held for 34 years by Senator Caesar Trunzo, whose challenger is Jimmy Dahroug, 27, an aide to the popular Suffolk County executive, Steve Levy. (Republicans hold all nine State Senate seats on Long Island, and have a 35-to-27 majority in the Senate over all.)

The two Democrats certainly face an uphill struggle against long-serving, well-financed, popular incumbents in districts that are solidly Republican; Mr. Flanagan’s district has 20,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, and Mr. Trunzo’s district has 22,000 more, though both also have large numbers of independent voters. But Democratic strategists are counting on the popularity of their candidates for governor and the United States Senate, disenchantment with Republicans nationally and the recent gains their party has made on Long Island, where Democrats now control the Nassau and Suffolk county governments.

Mr. Flanagan, a lawyer who was first elected to an Assembly seat held by his father in 1986, won 62 percent of the vote in 2004, and has raised nearly three times as much money as Ms. Ellison’s $300,000. But she began the race buoyed by publicity from her book, movie and appearances on national television programs like “Today” and “Larry King Live.”

“It’s a media-driven, quasi-celebrity campaign,” said a Republican lobbyist, Desmond Ryan. He said Ms. Ellison “has a record to be proud of,” but described her as a “cause célèbre” and questioned whether her lack of experience qualified her for public office.

Bradford W. O’Hearn, a Democratic consultant who is not working on the campaign, acknowledged that her odds were long, but described Ms. Ellison as “a very appealing candidate.”

“Everybody who meets her says she’s so bubbly and likable,” he said, “but John is well-liked, too.”

The problems presented by a campaign involving a disabled candidate were underscored when some Ellison supporters took offense at a 30-second Flanagan commercial they called insensitive and gratuitous. In the ad, an unnamed “Democrat for Flanagan” describes herself as a teacher, mother and golfer, then adds: “Huge — I have a huge handicap.”

On a blog,, Democrats complained that the ad was “vile and reprehensible” and “in bad taste.”

Mr. Flanagan defended the ad, saying it was simply one of several unscripted testimonials from supporters in the district. Neither the candidate nor his campaign manager could explain why a comment about a golf handicap would be chosen for inclusion in a campaign commercial. They also declined to identify the woman in the ad.

Last week Mr. Flanagan introduced a new ad that praises Ms. Ellison as courageous and inspirational, even while questioning her credentials by describing her as “young” and “inexperienced.” (Mr. Flanagan, 45, was first elected to the Legislature at 25 — younger than Ms. Ellison.)

Asked about the “handicap” ad, Ms. Ellison said of Mr. Flanagan, “It’s unfortunate that he was ready to engage in those kinds of tactics so early,” but added, “I’m not going to waste my time or energy on that.”

Ms. Ellison’s life changed on her first day of seventh grade when, at age 11, she chose not to take the bus and instead walked home with friends and was struck by a vehicle and paralyzed. She had been active in karate, baseball, soccer, dance, choir and cello.

At Harvard, she was chosen by classmates as a commencement speaker, and went on to earn a master’s degree in government. With her mother, Jean, who accompanied her at Harvard, she wrote the book “Miracles Happen,” which was the basis for Mr. Reeve’s movie, “The Brooke Ellison Story.”

She returned home for doctoral studies in political psychology at Stony Brook University and to work as a motivational speaker, also volunteering for an old family friend, Marsha Z. Laufer, now Brookhaven’s Democratic Party leader.

Ms. Ellison relies on a ventilator to breathe, needs help getting dressed, guides her wheelchair by touching a remote-control device on the roof of her mouth with the tip of her tongue, and uses a voice-recognition device for dictation and to operate computers.

“I heard you have an amazing life,” Marga Cardona, a radiologist, told her one recent day when the candidate was campaigning door to door here. Outside a Stop & Shop, where Ms. Ellison was stationed beside a fall pumpkin display, a bearded man who declined to give his name but said he is a Republican told her, “I just sent you $100.”

Senator Flanagan, who flirted with running for governor this year, is also well known here and basked in bipartisan support as he bounded door to door at Halloween-decorated homes in Lake Grove wearing a campaign T-shirt, tan shorts and sneakers.

“Of course, I’m voting for you,” smiled Maureen Shanley, who said she is a Democrat and a PTA leader, thanking Mr. Flanagan for help on school aid.

At Uncle Giuseppe’s supermarket in Smithtown, Roberta Feltman told him, “I know who you are. I saw you on TV, and your whole life history in the mail.” Asked her political affiliation, Ms. Feltman said, “If John Flanagan is a Republican, I’m a Republican.”

The candidates clashed over taxes, health care and schools in a debate scheduled for broadcast Oct. 26, 28 and 29 on News 12 Long Island, and even disagree about their first meeting, last year, when Mr. Flanagan came to Ms. Ellison’s home to give her an award.

Ms. Ellison recalled asking his views on stem-cell research, which she supports for treating paralysis and other illnesses. “He said he would get back to me and never did,” she recalled. He said that he offered to introduce her to various state officials to respond to her concerns and that “frankly, that’s the last I heard on the subject.”

On the campaign trail, Ms. Ellison accuses Mr. Flanagan of failing to support stem-cell research and says his party has blocked a vote in the state Senate on a Democratic proposal to finance such work. But Mr. Flanagan says he supports a $250 million Republican plan for research that could include stem-cell projects, though they are not specified, and has urged a state bioethics panel to make recommendations on the issue.

“I’m focusing on who I am, what my record is, what I’ve delivered to the district,” Mr. Flanagan said. “I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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