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Ellison eyes historic bid

Stem-cell research advocate would be 1st Suffolk Democrat in state senate seat since 1898 if elected in 2006

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By Rick Brand
Staff Writer
New York Newsday
June 4, 2005

URL of video of Brooke Ellison (October 20, 2004):,0,6032024.realvideo

Brooke Ellison

Age: 26

Home: Stony Brook

Education: Graduated Ward Melville High School, with honors; received undergraduate degree from Harvard College and a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; pursuing a doctorate in political psychology from Stony Brook University.

Family: One of three children.

Background: Paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a car while walking home from school when she was 11. Life story inspired the 2004 A&E movie The Brooke Ellison Story, directed by the late Christopher Reeve. Has spent the past several years doing public speaking and lobbying government for more funding for stem-cell research.


John J. Flanagan

Age: 44

Home: East Northport

Education: Attended Harborfields High School; bachelor's in economics from College of William and Mary in Virginia in 1983; law degree from Touro Law School in Huntington in 1990. He keeps a Huntington law practice.

Family: Wife Lisa, three children.

Background: Elected to State Senate in 2002. He previously served in the Assembly for 16 years, taking over at 25 a job his father held for 14 years before dying in office. Lost race for Assembly minority leader by a single vote three years ago. Authored laws to lower the legal blood alcohol limit for boaters, expand tax breaks for firefighters and increase penalties for public lewdness.


Brooke Ellison, a quadriplegic who overcame a mountain of obstacles to get a Harvard education, is considering another steep summit, one no Suffolk Democrat has conquered in more than a century -- a seat in the New York State Senate.

Ellison, 26, a Stony Brook University doctoral student who has emerged as a national spokeswoman for the disabled, is weighing a race against a rising Albany star, State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), to press for state funding of stem-cell research. "It's something I never really thought about until recently when issues came to the forefront that are really important to me," said Ellison.

Ellison has already conferred with Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer, her town leader Marsha Laufer as well as Senate minority leader David Paterson (D-Manhattan), who sent aides to meet with her at her home.

"I was very impressed by her political knowledge," Schaffer said. "She's very realistic about what she needs to win the race. She's not doing it to make a point."

Ellison, who is paralyzed from the neck down, uses a wheelchair and relies on a respirator, could become just as potent a political contender as Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), experts say. McCarthy, whose husband was killed in the Long Island Rail Road shootings, first won office in 1994 while pushing for a ban on assault weapons.

"She's an inspirational person," said Frank MacKay, the state and Suffolk Independence Party chairman who was a classmate of Ellison's last fall. "She would be a very formidable candidate for any office."

Like McCarthy, Ellison has appeared on numerous national talk shows and has been the subject of a TV movie, directed by the late actor Christopher Reeve, and is the author of a memoir, Miracles Happen, co-written with her mother, Jean.

Ellison, still a full-time student in political psychology, acknowledged she is considering a run, but said she has not yet reached a decision and has no timetable for making one.

"Since Christopher Reeve died I feel it's almost a calling to continue his work," Ellison said, adding that she is considering a race in part because Flanagan "has a stand that is different than mine" on stem-cell issues.

Flanagan, 44, said he was unaware of Ellison's potential candidacy. "It's news to me," he said, declining to assess how formidable Ellison would be as a foe.

As for his position on stem-cell funding, Flanagan said, "It's not a simple equation. Stem-cell research is important. If the state can get involved and find funding, it is something it should do."

Although Paterson has proposed a $1-billion bond referendum to fund stem-cell research for a decade, and Republican Sen. Nick Spano of Westchester is drafting a similar measure, Flanagan said he has not yet reviewed either proposal. "A lot of it has to do with the details," he said, "How it gets done is a very complicated subject."

Charles O'Byrne, a spokesman for Paterson, said the minority leader has talked to Ellison, but only about stem cell issues, not her candidacy. Of Ellison's meeting with staffers, O'Byrne said, "we're always talking to people who are activist, committed to issues" and may have an interest in running.

The 2006 race could be pivotal for Democrats, who picked up three seats in the last election, narrowing the Senate GOP majority, 33 to 27, meaning a swing of four seats could turn the Senate over to Democrats. In Suffolk, the last Democrat to win a Senate seat was John L. Havens of Center Moriches who won a single term in 1898.