February 28, 2002
By Chris Cillizza
Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) announcement last weekend that he suffers from a mild form of multiple sclerosis has already sparked a political brouhaha over the appropriateness of his illness as a campaign issue.
Shortly after Wellstone's Sunday announcement, his opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R), was asked by a reporter whether the Senator's illness could be an issue in their hotly contested Senate race.
The reporter said Coleman chose not to comment. Republicans contend that the reporter was referred to Coleman's written statement and interpreted that wrongly as a no comment.
In the statement, Coleman said that he "wishes the Senator well in his battle with M.S."
Sensing an opportunity, however, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent out a release titled "All you need to know about Norm Coleman."
The release highlighted the fact that Coleman had not commented on the relevancy of Wellstone's illness as a campaign issue.
Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for the committee, said he was "shocked that Coleman wouldn't proactively say that this wasn't going to be in any way, shape or form a campaign issue."
The National Republican Senatorial Committee sought to downplay any suggestion that M.S. would be a factor in the race.
"We agree with Senator Wellstone that this is not going to be an issue in the campaign," said NRSC spokesman Dan Allen.
Allen pointed out that the candidates have significant differences on taxes, jobs, the economy and education, which will be the focus of the race. Both parties are looking for even the slightest edge in the contest, which is expected to be one of the closest of the cycle.
In a survey released earlier this week, Wellstone led Coleman 46 percent to 42 percent, a lead within the poll's 4 percent margin of error. The Feb. 19-20 poll tested 625 registered voters.
Wellstone is not the only Democratic candidate this cycle who suffers from M.S.
Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury (D), who is challenging Sen. Gordon Smith (R), publicly acknowledged his illness in the mid-1980s.
Bradbury said he hasn't yet spoken with Wellstone but he expects to soon.
Although Bradbury said no political opponent has ever brought up the disease in a public forum, it often comes up in "whisper campaigns."
"There are always whisper campaigns," he said, "but the reality is if you present a strong presence and issues that people care about" the illness is never a major issue.
This is not the first time that a prominent Congressional candidate has revealed a potentially debilitating illness during the course of a competitive campaign.
Probably the most well-known instance occurred in the 2000 New York Senate race when then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) announced he had prostate cancer.
The April 27, 2000, announcement came in the midst of an already heated battle between the mayor and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton(D).
Clinton and Giuliani spoke briefly by phone, and the Clinton campaign released a statement that said, "Like all New Yorkers, my prayers and best wishes are with the mayor for a full and speedy recovery and I hope that everyone joins me in wishing him well."
Less than a month later, Giuliani dropped out of the race, citing his need to focus on overcoming the cancer. Clinton went on to beat Rep. Rick Lazio (R) 55 percent to 43 percent.
Several House Members have run and been re-elected after disclosing that they were suffering from Parkinson's disease, however. Illinois Rep. Lane Evans (D), who has represented the 17th district since 1982, was diagnosed with the ailment in 1995.
He publicly revealed his condition in 1998 while in the midst of a very competitive race, which he won 52 percent to 48 percent.
In a rematch in 2000, Evans spent much of the campaign educating voters about the disease and the few limitations it put on him.
In an interview Wednesday, Evans said his decision to run ads explaining his condition came in response to "push polling" by his opponent insinuating that he was not fit for reelection.
"They tried to make a big deal out of it and it blew up in their face," he said.
Evans called Wellstone a "good friend" but said he has not yet spoken to him about his illness.
As for his own race, Evans faces only token opposition this fall and has already formally announced he will run for a 12th term.
New Mexico's Joe Skeen(R-N.M.), who announced his retirement last month, has suffered from Parkinson's since 1997.
In the 2000 campaign, state Treasurer Michael Montoya (D) accused Skeen of dodging debates because he did not want voters to see his physical condition.
"Any failure [of] the Congressman to reveal his true health conditions is tantamount to dereliction of duty to the voters who put him in office," said Montoya in a press release.
Skeen dismissed Montoya's allegations, did not debate him and won with 58 percent.
He did not mention his disease as a reason for his decision to leave Congress after 10 terms in January.
In several gubernatorial contests in recent years, cancer has cropped up as an issue.
In 2000, North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D), who was running for governor, announced less than two months before the election that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although her Republican opponent never discussed her illness on the campaign trail, the outgoing GOP governor often mentioned the difficulty and stresses of the job. Democrats accused him of subtly making her illness an issue. Heitkamp lost the race 55 percent to 45 percent.
Attorney General Jim Ryan(R), who is running for governor in Illinois, recently announced that he has cancer for the third time.
Ryan is undergoing treatment while he campaigns. He has said that his health is a legitimate campaign issue, though neither of his two opponents has brought it up thus far.
The Republican primary is March 19.
Copyright 2002 © Roll Call Inc.