There are myriad reasons why people, both disabled and nondisabled, don’t want to run for office. It’s expensive. It’s intrusive. It’s exhausting. And dealing with party politics can be a pain.
But for those who are willing to stay the course and put up with the rubber chicken dinners, endless cocktail party chitchat, and knowing there are people out there just waiting for you to screw up somehow so it can be tomorrow’s front page news, the rewards can be satisfying.
Lex Frieden, Nick Sposato and Chuck Graham are a testament to those rewards.
Lex Frieden, widely hailed as an architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ran headlong into obstacles when he first tried to enter the political fray. Running as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in the late 1970s, he made it through the regional election. Next stop, Texas Democratic Convention. That’s where things quickly went south.
“The chairman got up on stage and invited all candidates to join him,” says Frieden, a quad since 1967. “There was no ramp or lift. I went to the front and said I’d like to be considered but couldn’t get up on stage.”
What happened next stunned Frieden. The state chairman told him, “Don’t trouble yourself. We already have our slate selected. The vote is just a formality.”
Frieden was incensed at a process that he saw as anything but democratic. A group of women from the back of the auditorium joined him up front, yelling together with him, “This is not fair!”
Hoping to quell the disruption, the party chair asked Frieden, “What do you want?” Frieden said he wanted to go to the state convention. The state chair said, “I’ll give you my seat. If I do that will you be quiet?” Frieden agreed, and soon after attended the state convention where he was elected to be a delegate to the DNC.
“I was so excited!” Frieden recalls. “Until the state party chair called me about a week out. He said, ‘Mr. Frieden, we know it’s going to be hard on you to go, so we moved you to a reserve position as an alternate delegate.’” And just like that, Frieden was off the slate to make room for a former governor of Texas who wanted to go.
“I was terribly dismayed and disillusioned by the heavy-handedness and outright disregard for democratic principles by party insiders, and I ultimately disassociated myself from the party,” says Frieden. “At the same time, I was attracted to the Republican party by what I perceived then to be a commitment to personal freedom, individual choice and opportunity. Thus, I became a Republican.”
Frieden’s party switch was influenced by Justin Dart, Jr., an influential Republican in Texas at the time, in addition to being a fellow advocate for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Justin was a great mentor, friend and confidant, and he convinced me that while many of our colleagues believed that Republicans would never support disability rights, thoughtful leaders like Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bob Dole, Lowell Weicker, Orrin Hatch, John Chafee and Steve Bartlett certainly would. And, of course they did.”
Why are parties important?
“Party affiliation and party volunteerism are important from an organizational and advocacy perspective,” says Frieden, a fixture in his state’s political scene. He also directs the Independent Living Research Utilization program at TIRR Memorial Hermann, which launched the nonpartisan #REVUP America — Make the DISABILITY VOTE Count campaign in February. “In our political system, parties by and large determine who the candidates will be, and they establish the platforms that project the philosophy and commitments on which candidates stand.”
A Win by the ‘Average Joe’
When Nick Sposato, 38th ward alderman in the city of Chicago, was a firefighter, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He kept working for several years, until one day, “I was working back-to-back fires on a 90-degree August day and found I couldn’t get myself off the roof.”
A Democrat, he was always interested in politics and remembers wanting to be an alderman even from an early age. In 2007, after his MS made firefighting difficult if not impossible, Sposato transferred his energies to campaigning for office.
Coming up against a very powerful organization, Sposato ran as an independent with a much looser organization and a much smaller purse — $40,000 to his opponent’s $300,000. “I only got about 25 percent of the vote that time,” he says. Undeterred, Sposato came back again, and in 2011 won his election against a crowded field and without the party’s blessing.
Sposato, who dropped out of college after a year and half, was referred to in a Chicago Sun-Times story that ran during his second campaign as an “Average Joe.” Far from being upset by it, the pride in Nick’s voice is evident. “I went from being a truck driver, to a firefighter, to being the first alderman elected to serve two different wards.” He previously served the 36th Ward, and when its lines were redrawn, won the election to serve the 38th in 2014.
He has tried to keep his MS from being an issue, whether on the campaign trail or in his day to day work, so far with success. “While the media tried to make it one, my MS was never a factor in my election,” he says. Though he’s changed mobility devices — first a cane, then a walker, now a wheelchair — he’s found city hall to be accessible, and his fellow council members and constituents treat him with the same respect as before.
It’s obvious Sposato enjoys his work and is dedicated to the residents of his ward. “I am working 70-80 hour weeks,” he says. “If a constituent wants to meet me, I don’t want to tell them ‘OK, I’ll see you two weeks from Tuesday’ when they’re in my office right now.”
Chuck Graham wanted to be in the state legislature from the time he was 11 and met his Missouri state representative on a Boy Scout camping trip. A car accident at age 16 left him a T3 para, but never once did he consider a change in career plans.
In 1996, he threw his hat in the ring for the 24th district House seat in Missouri, winning election that year and three times after that, and in 2004 added a term in the state Senate as well.
Graham showed he could and would do anything any other candidate was doing from knocking on doors to putting up signs to attending events. “I think I got a lot of respect,” he says. “People said, ‘Hey, he must want that job pretty bad if he’s out there putting in his own yard signs.’”
Graham is still the first and only wheelchair user elected to the Missouri legislature, a fact Joe Biden was unaware of during a 2008 campaign stop, urging Graham to “stand up and be recognized” — a highly publicized ‘oops’ that was even the subject of a South Park episode.
That gaffe aside, Graham says he never felt disabled until one day when a bill he was pushing stalled at 71 votes and he needed 82 to get it through. “I couldn’t get up and down the aisles because they were too narrow, so I had to grab my labor friends to whip for me.”
In spite of that experience, he believes it is extremely important for people with disabilities to run for office. “We are the largest yet most invisible minority,” he says. “People think we all want handouts. What they don’t realize is most of us want to work and pay taxes!”
Graham recognizes that running for office is often out of reach for the average American with a disability. “It is really expensive,” he says. “You need to raise a million and a half in Missouri for a job that pays $35,000 a year.”
He is nevertheless quick to tout the value of people with disabilities jumping in. “When we get involved in the political process, we become a beacon of hope not just to people with disabilities, but parents of kids with disabilities.”
A Good Place to Start
Running for office is hard, messy work. But more people with disabilities are testing the waters because of our obvious need for representation, and volunteering for campaigns is a great entree into the political process. “Let’s say you aren’t ready to run for office but you care about public transit,” says Frieden. “Perhaps you’ll consider volunteering for a mayoral race or a city council race and talk to your candidate about getting a seat on the transit board.”
Graham agrees with Frieden. “When you volunteer for a campaign, you’re building relationships,” he says. “Relationships that will bear fruit maybe years down the road.”
Frieden says we need to engage in politics for the long haul, not for short-term solutions. He recounts how he and a group of disability advocates supported a Houston mayoral candidate back in 1992, asking him to commit to appointing people with disabilities to high level positions in his administration. He agreed, but lost the election.
Fast forward to 2016. Houston inaugurates a new mayor — Democrat Sylvester Turner, the very man Frieden and his colleagues supported in 1992. “Two weeks later, he asked me to serve on the transit board, honoring his commitment from 24 years before.”
Sposato says once you’ve made up your mind, it’s important to be strategic — you can’t just decide to run. “You’ve got to build up a resume. I had a lot of volunteerism on mine,” he says. “Chamber of Commerce. Lions. School Council. I coached the kids’ sports. Volunteered at the food pantry.”
Being a fireman didn’t hurt, either. “People love firemen! If it wasn’t for the generosity and support of my fireman friends, I’m not sure I’d have gotten elected,” says Sposato.
His story is one that resonates. How can a guy who dropped out of college and isn’t even a lawyer become an alderman of not one, but two of the most powerful wards in the city of Chicago? “If I can win an election, anyone can do it. Don’t let anything hold you back.”