How They Won: Three Wheelchair Users Share Stories About Their Election to Office

By |2019-01-02T10:32:17+00:00January 2nd, 2019|
Contact The Editor

Nick LiBassi, pictured with his nephew and honorary campaign manager, Mac, now represents his community on the Rochelle Park, New Jersey, township committee.

Nick LiBassi, pictured with his nephew and honorary campaign manager, Mac, now represents his community on the Rochelle Park, New Jersey, township committee.

Why do 15-year-old nephews and 9-year-old daughters make good campaign aides? Because they’re willing to knock on doors. And as anyone who’s been shaken down by an elementary school popcorn salesman knows: It’s hard to say no to a kid.

Of all the barriers to running for office as a wheelchair user — misplaced metaphors aside — the most pervasive is front steps. There is no substitute for old-fashioned door-to-door canvasing, especially when you’re campaigning at the local level. But private residences, you may have noticed, usually have steps.

Nick LiBassi, vice president of partnership expansion for United Spinal Association and newly elected township committee member for Rochelle Park, New Jersey, worked around this by appointing his 15-year-old nephew, Mac, as his honorary campaign manager. LiBassi would roll as far as he could get, then send Mac to the door: “Hi, my uncle Nicky is running for township committee — would you be interested in talking with him?”

Mariana “Muffy” Davis, who was recently elected to serve as an Idaho state representative, recruited her 9-year-old daughter. The long hours crisscrossing her district in rural Hailey, Idaho, gave Davis and her kid some quality time together, along with an added benefit: “Everybody’s pretty nice when a cute, little 9-year-old knocks on their door,” she laughs. “They’re not going to yell at you.”

Muffy Davis, who canvassed with her daughter and husband, won a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives.

Muffy Davis, who canvassed with her daughter and husband, won a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives. Photo by Karen Bossick.

.
For Darryl Fairchild, a pastor turned community organizer turned city commissioner in Dayton, Ohio, a larger voter pool meant having to rely on multiple door knockers. “I’d go out with two or even four volunteers and they would go ahead of me, sending out people who were willing to talk,” says Fairchild. “That way I was able to talk to as many people as possible.”

If you want to win an election as a wheelchair user, creative thinking and being able to work around an inaccessible world are requirements. And though LiBassi, Davis and Fairchild came in with different politics, varying experience levels and distinct electorates to appeal to, they share some essential commonalities: work ethic, a passion for leadership and a deep commitment to the communities they’ve been chosen to represent.

Darryl Fairchild now sits on the Dayton, Ohio, city commission.

Darryl Fairchild now sits on the Dayton, Ohio, city commission.

.

The Grind is What You Make of it

Campaigning is a grind, mentally and physically. You make calls, you shake hands, you drive, you write, you attend meetings, you make speeches, you strategize, along with a thousand more menial tasks, and you do it all again and again and again.

“Whenever I wasn’t working my full-time job, I was doing something for the campaign,” says LiBassi. “And even when I was traveling, at night I was working from the hotel room, editing things and putting together the list for where I wanted to hit the next night.”

LiBassi, who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury, estimates that he and his nephew knocked on 1,600 doors in Rochelle Park from April through October, in addition to hundreds of other houses with his nondisabled running mate. LiBassi also attended as many community events as he could — from Little League games to ribbon cutting ceremonies, visiting senior centers, churches and the American Legion, to name a few. He refuses to call it hard work though. “I told myself before the campaign that if I was going to do it, I was going to have as much fun as possible,” he says, “and that’s what I did.”

LiBassi and volunteers, including Mac, work the phone lines before the election.

LiBassi and volunteers, including Mac, work the phone lines before the election.

A self-described “people person,” LiBassi already had a strong connection to Rochelle Park — he grew up in Maywood, the next town over — but he says that the campaign strengthened that connection even further. “I thought I knew the town pretty well, but it’s a lot different going door to door, pushing those streets, seeing the condition of the sidewalks, hearing about people’s concerns that they are in a flood zone or about street lighting that’s not adequate around a turn,” he says. “You get to see some of the issues firsthand.”

In today’s highly polarized political environment, some of the animosity of national politics filtered down to LiBassi’s local campaign. LiBassi defines himself as a conservative Republican, but he committed to knocking on everyone’s door, Republican, Democrat or Independent. “We had doors slammed in our face,” he says. “Being a Republican or Democrat at this level, I’m not voting on border walls or abortion. At the end of the day, those people and I all want the same things — the roads need to be paved, to make sure the snow is cleared. We need clean streets and safe schools, and to know the ambulance and fire department are going to respond to you in time.”

Those who were willing to listen tended to agree with that message. LiBassi was elected by a comfortable margin, and with 3,800 votes cast, it’s a safe bet he met a large majority of the people who voted for him.

The Rookie

LiBassi at least knew what he was getting into, having served as the vice president of his town’s Republican Party organization, as well as serving on the local zoning board for six years before he decided to run for office. Muffy Davis, a para from a skiing accident, didn’t have much of an idea how campaigns actually worked before she started managing one.

Davis and her daugher share materials with a voter.

Davis and her daughter share materials with a voter. Photo by Karen Bossick.

In fact, Davis had never thought about getting into politics until the morning after the 2016 presidential election. While her county is best known for being home to the Sun Valley ski resort, most of her district is rural, with expansive fields of alfalfa and malting barley sold to some of the biggest breweries in the country. Like most agricultural areas in the West, Hailey has a large immigrant population, mostly Latino. When Davis woke up her daughter, she told her what had happened in the election. “All my friends have to leave,” her daughter responded and started crying, fearing her friends would be deported.

“That’s not going to happen,” Davis responded.

Right then, she decided she needed to get involved. She connected with her local chapter of Indivisible, a national grassroots advocacy organization, and started volunteering on women’s rights and healthcare access issues. Local Democratic Party organizers were looking for potential candidates, and they approached Davis about her interest in running. Born in Sun Valley, Davis has strong roots in Blaine County, and locals knew her name thanks to a decorated career as a Paralympian in sit-skiing and handcycling. All of this made Davis a prime candidate.

Still, Davis didn’t think she was ready to run for office. But winning an election to the International Paralympic Committee Governing Board — “sports politics,” as she calls it — gave her some confidence. And some others factors were lining up to give her a real shot — a Republican was currently serving in a local seat that had traditionally been held by a Democrat, and advocates across the state were making a big push for Medicaid expansion, one of her core issues. She announced her campaign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Ketchum.

That same march, the year before, had been her first real experience with the power of grassroots organizing. But as far as campaigns go, “I didn’t know anything,” she says. “I just knew I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity.”

Davis got a major boost when she received a scholarship to go to a Progressive Change Campaign Committee candidate training event and another when she decided to run a coordinated campaign with Democratic candidates for two other posts in her district. “It was amazingly helpful for me, to be that close to both of them and have them as mentors to guide me through it,” she says.

The coordinated campaign helped with events and messaging, among a host of other things. Adding that to the support of the advocacy organizations she’d been involved with and her lifelong connections through her local community provided the base of her campaign. “There was a huge group of people who were already rallied and wanted this to happen and to be engaged,” says Davis.

Davis had a strong base to build on but still had a lot of work to do connecting with voters in the rest of the district. District 26 is so big, she says, that it would take her three hours to drive across it. So drive she did, putting in thousands of miles and countless hours to even get to the front doors of her would-be constituents. Apart from front steps, rural Idaho presented particular obstacles for a wheelchair user — sidewalks are lacking, and some towns didn’t even have paved streets. “It was way more arduous than I had anticipated,” she says.

It all paid off though. Davis unseated the Republican incumbent. And Idaho voters passed Medicaid expansion. For Davis, and hopefully Idaho, November 6 was a good day.

Third Time’s a Charm

Darryl Fairchild, a para since a bicycle accident at age 26, had more experience with campaigning than either LiBassi or Davis when he set out to win a Dayton, Ohio, city commission seat in a special election last spring. That’s because he had previously lost two city commissioner races. For his third campaign, he made “Fairchild Doesn’t Quit” a campaign slogan and leaned into those defeats to connect with a city that has shouldered more than its fair share of hard times.

The two previous runs had taught Fairchild a lot about the ins and outs of campaigning, something that came in handy when longtime Dayton City Commissioner Joey Williams retired unexpectedly in February. The special election to replace Williams was set for May, leaving only a 10-day window to gather enough signatures to run, followed by a compressed, 60-day campaign.

Fairchild enlisted volunteers to call ahead about accessibility, among other things.

Fairchild enlisted volunteers to call ahead about accessibility, among other things.

Fairchild knew his campaign would have to be efficient in delegating the workload so that he could spend the bulk of his time out in public, meeting voters and spreading his message. “There are three resources that every campaign has — money, volunteers and the candidate’s time,” says Fairchild. “You can always raise more money and recruit more volunteers, but you only have so much time.”

In addition to knocking on doors, Fairchild’s campaign volunteers would call ahead to scout his event locations. If there were stairs or other accessibility issues, Fairchild would make sure there were people ready to help him get where he needed. Navigating an often-inaccessible world to reach voters became another way of demonstrating that he had the problem-solving skills and passion required to take on the issues that faced his city.

Fairchild already had a lot of support throughout Dayton from his work as a pastor and a community organizer. He’d helped found Lift Greater Dayton, a collection of both religious and secular community organizations that worked on diverse issues such as voter registration, education initiatives, job creation and safe neighborhoods. That work had taught Fairchild the campaign should be more about the community than him. “While your name is on the ballot, it’s really not about you, but about the ideas and values and the team you bring along with you,” he says. “You can’t run for office without a lot of support, and not everyone with a disability has that.”

That’s true for all aspects of building or maintaining a full life as a wheelchair user — you need a great deal of support. You have to be able to work with people, ask for help and be willing to try, fail, adapt and try again until you make a little bit of progress and then start it all over again. Those are traits many people want to see in elected officials.

In the end, Dayton got behind Fairchild’s experience and message of resilience and community. Though his opponent had the endorsement of the local Democratic Party, Fairchild won with a slim, 492-vote margin and has already started serving on the city commission.

Fairchild, Davis and LiBassi were consistent in their advice for other people with disabilities who are thinking about running for office: Do it. It’s hard work but incredibly rewarding. Fairchild echoed a line from President Obama’s farewell address that should ring true regardless of political philosophy: “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”

How About You?

Thinking politics might be for you, but not sure where to start? While there aren’t yet any training programs created specifically for people with disabilities, Sarah Blahovec, the disability vote organizer for the National Council on Independent Living, says that they are currently seeking funds to start an online and in-person training program to fill that gap. In the meantime, check out NCIL’s Resources on Running for Office, which lists a wide variety of organizations across the political spectrum that provide training opportunities for prospective political candidates.

If you are interested in public office, but have never been involved in a political campaign, a good way to test the waters is by volunteering for the local campaign of a candidate you support. “That way you can see what it’s really like on the inside,” says Darryl Fairchild, a city commissioner in Dayton, Ohio.

Other Candidates

There is currently no comprehensive list of people with disabilities who serve in public office, so it’s impossible to say how disability representation in 2018 compared with other elections. Following is a list of wheelchair users who we know ran for office in 2018. Please let us know if we missed anyone.

Newly Elected

• Jennifer Longdon, State Representative, Arizona
• Muffy Davis, State Representative, Idaho
• Darryl Fairchild, City Commission, Dayton, Ohio
• Nikki Villavicencio, City Council, Maplewood, Minnesota
• Nick LiBassi, Township Committee, Rochelle Park, New Jersey

Not Elected

• Billie Sutton, Governor, South Dakota
• Jean-Marie Lawrence, State Representative, Tennessee
• Kati McFarland, State Representative, Arkansas

Re-elected

• Jim Langevin, U.S. Representative, Rhode Island
• Greg Abbott, Governor, Texas
• Darren Jernigan, State Representative, Tennessee

Resources

• “Including People with Disabilities in Your Political Campaign: A Guide for Campaign Staff”, ncil.org/campaign-guide
• “Resources on Running for Office”, ncil.org/run-for-office