Poised for action in her ultralight wheelchair, Jennifer Longdon prepares to dash through the summer rainstorm in Phoenix, Arizona. “Every woman for herself!” she calls out, challenging a reporter who is also going for it. We make it through the light monsoon rain, she on wheels, and the reporter — me — on foot, both wiping our eyeglasses dry on our clothes when we get to shelter.
Longdon, 57, is giving me a tour of Ability360, a huge, state-of-the-art independent living center — complete with gym and fitness facilities — for people with disabilities. Longdon is communications coordinator/editor for Ability360 and LivAbility Media, which publishes a quarterly magazine about independent living. She is also a gunshot survivor — and a candidate for a House seat in the Arizona Legislature.
“This is going to sound extremely corny,” she says, “but after that incredible act of evil — someone deliberately pointing a gun at my fiancé and me, and firing it, I’ve always felt this weird need to offset that violence, that evil.” The shooting happened 13 years ago, piercing her spinal cord at T4, leaving her paralyzed from mid-chest and below.
“Currently there is no one out and proud and representing people with disabilities in our state,” she says of the Arizona Legislature. “I really want to be there — at the place where it makes the most difference.”
Longdon has entered a place of rarified political reality: running for office as a wheelchair user. There are no stats available to describe this distinction, but a good guess is she belongs to a group that makes up a fraction of a percent at best.
The Big Change
It was November 15, 2004, when Longdon’s life — and her then-fiancé’s — were upended through gun violence. They were driving in his pickup in Phoenix, talking about wedding plans, when another truck sideswiped theirs. Her fiancé stopped his vehicle and gunshots rang out. He reached for his own handgun but was shot in his head, and another bullet ripped through her spine. She was in the hospital for five excruciating months. He is now in long-term care with a brain injury. The two are no longer together, and the shooter was never apprehended.
Everything changed that day. She went from being a respected woman to a wheelchair user who is often ignored because of that chair. “Before my injury, I was 6 feet tall, had some affluence, a great job, great house, great zip code. If I went into a store, I got service. If I went into a restaurant, I got service. If I asked to speak to the manager … the manager took that very seriously,” she says.
In her previous life she was a massage therapist building a resort-destination massage practice. “I had privilege, and I didn’t fully recognize it. I worked hard and thought that’s why I had all these things. But after I became paralyzed, people stopped seeing me: as a woman, as a white woman, as an affluent person. They started seeing me as a wheelchair. Referring to me as a wheelchair. Not even a human. As a wheelchair.”
She mimics the voices that wheelchair users know too well: “‘There’s a wheelchair in aisle three that needs help. There’s a wheelchair needs seating. Can anyone help the wheelchair over in Bed Two?’ That was very, very hard for me.”
On top of it all she fell and broke her leg, and ironically, suddenly, people were engaging with her again. Because of the break, she now had a leg that was elevated in a cast, in her wheelchair. She was back to being just anybody. “So I’m out doing my shopping with my leg up. And suddenly, people are talking to me again. Because I have a broken leg … I’d be in line at the checkout, and someone would go, ‘Skiing accident? Car accident?’ And cashiers would look me in the eye, put change in my hand again.”
But as soon as her leg healed and she put it down again and went out to the same places as simply a person in a wheelchair, the cashiers stopped paying attention to her. “They’re looking at my companion, asking them, ‘What does she want? What does she need?’ They’re no longer putting change in my hand.
“And that really pissed me off.”
Becoming a Candidate
As her awareness grew over 13 years at chair level, Longdon served on the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Phoenix Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Council, the Statewide Independent Living Council and several other commissions and boards.
She’s been an activist with Arizonans for Gun Safety and helped organize with law enforcement a controversial gun-buyback program.
On the Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, Longdon helped create a non-discrimination ordinance amendment that supported the disability community, and she also worked to codify protections for the LGBTQ community in terms of employment and housing. Before the code changes, she says, “It was not illegal for someone to say, ‘Oh, you’re gay? You can’t rent this apartment. Oh, you’re gay? You can’t work here.’ We changed that. That’s one of the things I’ll always be very proud of.”
As a gun-safety and background-check advocate, she has met both Arizona Senator John McCain and President Barrack Obama in Washington, D.C., (and cherishes a selfie she has with Vice President Joe Biden). She admires both Obama and McCain and believes in a bipartisan approach to solving complicated social issues.
“The last time our country was this fundamentally divided, we went to war,” she says, referring to the Civil War. She isn’t predicting another such war, but she sees the extreme rhetoric in the nation’s capital and across the country as harmful. She believes in building coalitions to tackle problems.
“Watching how the rhetoric changed in our country, seemingly overnight, was horrifying to me,” she says. As a Democrat, she believes the negative, harmful language began with Donald Trump’s election. “But still, I am willing to work on policy. I’ve always said that policy is political but doesn’t have to be partisan. And so from a policy standpoint, I want to be able to work with anyone.”
Longdon has the support of a former Arizona mayor, who praised her “ability to be strong in the face of what happened, to be resilient in the face of such tragedy.” Sara Presler served two terms from 2008 to 2012 as Flagstaff’s first woman mayor, and the youngest.
“I see Jennifer as someone who could do a very great job reaching across the aisle and finding common ground to move the state forward,” says Presler, now a Phoenix-based attorney. She met Longdon through the Mayors Against Illegal Guns program. “Jennifer’s also somebody who has earned the respect of people in the private and public sectors. That really matters for making public policy.”
So what really moved her to run for office? A few things: The Arizona Legislature, which leans conservative, almost killed a law that Longdon believes is of utmost importance. “They nearly gutted Shannon’s Law, an 18-year-old bipartisan gun-safety bill. No one has ever claimed to be maliciously prosecuted as a result of Shannon’s Law, but someone took gun-lobby money, and just decided, what the hell, let’s get rid of this. And I was, like, I’m really fed up. I can’t take this any more.”
Also, after Trump’s election, organizers of the Phoenix Women’s March put out a statement of their priorities and included a list of past civil-rights activists. Longdon was shocked that there was nothing about disability rights, and no heroes from the disability-rights movement.
“So the legislature has completely pissed me off, and the women’s march has made it clear that our lack of representation is going to continue and leave people with disabilities vulnerable. At the same time, a seat in this legislative district opened. And while I’ve thought about running in the past and always figured I’d make a great policy advisor for somebody, this time it was like, ‘Nope. I’m running. I’m running.’”
Also, her 2016 trip to the White House — when she joined President Obama on stage the day he announced his executive recommendation on gun safety — crystalized her desire to run for public office.
“Prior to my visit to the White House, I know my name had been floated once or twice to be considered to run for office, but it didn’t float very high because people were, like, ‘Do you think she’s too fragile?’ I know there’s a segment of the population that makes assumptions about me because I use a wheelchair. And those assumptions aren’t always flattering, right? As I’ve watched other nondisabled candidates do their campaigns — because I’ve worked on other campaigns — I’ve sat back and said, ‘Now how could I do that as a wheelchair user? How would I manage these things?’”
And then there was the awe she felt the day she wheeled down the same wheelchair ramp used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States.
The Interconnectedness of Issues
A long-time advocate who believes in bipartisan problem solving, Longdon has volunteered on several campaigns and social issues. A liberal, mother, gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment, she has a list of issues she’s most passionate about: stricter gun regulations, immigration justice, marriage equality, excellent education for all, and affordable, quality health care. Since the shooting, she has especially been an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities and other minorities. Disability rights is her heart’s cause.
But while a major focus for Longdon is improving the lives of people with disabilities, she believes that the intersection of disabilities with many other social issues makes her a strong candidate to better the lives of all Arizonans.
“If you’re working on civil rights, even if it’s just disability rights, it touches education and employment. It touches housing and public transportation and health care and how the criminal justice system works. It touches disability and being LGBTQ, disability and being undocumented, disability and being black or brown, disability and being poor, being uneducated, being whatever else that made you ‘other.’”
Her employing caregivers 18 hours a week to help with some of her daily physical routines has also put her in touch with a segment of the population in a way that she wasn’t before the shooting.
“Once you start recognizing marginalization in one group, you see how other groups are marginalized. I’ve relied on caregivers the past 13 years, and those caregivers end up being the domestic women that they talked about in the Women’s March platform: white women who are undereducated, new immigrants, women of color who weren’t getting other jobs.
“These women come into my life and become part of my life, sometimes for days, sometimes for months and years, and you develop a very intimate connection. Because they’re caring for my body. And in this process, we’re not co-workers like with someone in your office. We’re eating together, we’re cooking together, we’re cleaning together, we’re laughing and crying together.”
She feels their marginalization on a daily basis and has learned that disabilities can cause poverty and poverty can increase the chances of disability. As evidence of disability causing poverty, she cites the lack of employment of disabled people, the cost of retrofitting homes and vehicles and the possible need for full-time care. On the flip side of poverty leading to disability, she points out how poor people often live in old housing plagued with lead, for example, that can impact children’s brains.
“I think that my own marginalization, my own minority status, gives me a point of view that some of the other candidates might not share,” she says, citing her understanding of the importance of fighting for a wide variety of civil rights. “It’s all interconnected. We’ve got to work together to get solutions.” Like the need for jobs. “By helping individuals reach their full potential in terms of productivity and their ability to contribute to the community, so they then pay taxes. They’re contributing, they’re using less resources.”
A mother of a son in his mid-20s who is a college graduate, Longdon also has strong feelings about the importance of excellent education — for everyone. “Why would we not ensure that all our young people were as educated as they could be so they become vital members of a thriving workforce rather than building widgets at minimum wage?”
An Independent Life of Service
But it is her work on gun control that has brought Longdon the most — and sometimes, worst — attention. She has been harassed and threatened by extremist gun lovers [see The Weight of Public Life, below]. In time, however, she pushed forward beyond the negativity. And she set up her life to live independently.
She made her home accessible. In addition to widening doors, lowering countertops and installing a roll-in shower, she added an automated environmental system. Now, via her smartphone, she can see who’s approaching her home, she can turn on lights and lock or unlock doors remotely and control the house temperature — whether she’s in bed or across the country.
Until last year she had the assistance of Pearl, a service dog who knew her every need and mood [Pearl died in November]. Now Longdon’s live-in presence is Porter, a big mutt whose “super power is shedding,” she jokes, though it turned out he was not suited to be a service dog. Still, he is attentive and loving — 110 pounds of caution.
The outspoken, gritty and sometimes irreverent Longdon, who does not shy away from colorful language, including the f-bomb, is anticipating a strong campaign, and a chance to improve the policies of the state of Arizona. As a legislator. And as a disabled person.
“I’ll put my community service up against anyone else who’s going to run,” says Longdon, whose campaign website includes an illustrated profile of her leaning forward in a wheelchair, ponytail flying back, headed toward whatever comes.
Currently there are five candidates, including an incumbent, for two Arizona House seats in District 24. The primary election is scheduled August 2018, and the general election November 2018.
“I like my odds. I think I have a good message. I honestly think that I have as good a chance as anyone else. They’re all good men,” she says of the other candidates for the Arizona House seats.
“And I think I’m really tough,” she adds. “To become independent with a significant disability requires toughness, requires advocacy, requires a lot of problem-solving.”
The Weight of Public Life
After being shot and paralyzed in 2004, Jennifer Longdon was harassed and threatened by gun-rights extremists in 2014. Much of this came after an article focused on how women advocating for responsible gun use and for background checks are targeted and mistreated by gun-rights activists.
The 2014 Mother Jones article reported on an incident that happened after Longdon, who is now a candidate for the Arizona Legislature House, took part in a press conference with Everytown for Gun Safety (formerly Mayors Against Illegal Guns). The event coincided with the national National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis. Longdon’s image, striking with long brown hair and proud posture, was included in news reports about the protest.
Later in the airport, a gun-loving zealot saw Longdon on the television news, and then again, right in front of him. He walked over and spit in her face. After the Mother Jones article revealed that incident, gun-rights extremists jumped out of the woodwork and onto the internet, claiming that Longdon was a fraud, that she didn’t even need a wheelchair, and threatened her with rape and death. And her home address was published on the internet.
She told her friends and her son to stay away, because some of the threats were aimed at people she loved.
“It turned into such a nightmare that I was basically quarantined in my house,” she recalls. “The death threats were so horrific that it was really bad.”
And this was not the first time she’d received threats due to her gun-safety advocacy.
Longdon returned home late one night in May 2013 after working with a Phoenix gun-buyback program that she helped coordinate with local law enforcement. She wheeled herself from her van to her front door. A man with a gun emerged from the darkness. Menacingly, he pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger — soaking Longdon with a spray of water.
“Don’t you wish you had a gun now, bitch?” he asked, before disappearing into the night. Longdon, a gun owner who actually supports the Second Amendment, called the police, but the perpetrator was gone.
Like many gun-violence victims who experience PTSD, Longdon was briefly catapulted back to the terrible night nearly a decade earlier when she and her fiancé were shot.
But time passed, she sucked it up — and went on with her life.