Inside the race to replace Congress’ first quadriplegic — and its effect on disability rights

Now that Fung is a strong contender to replace Langevin, the bespectacled 58-year-old and his allies face a tricky question: Should a Democrat win his seat in order to continue his work for disability rights — or a Republican who counts Langevin as a friend also attacks the cause he defends?

Langevin, who endorsed Rhode Island Treasurer General Seth Magaziner over four other Democratic primary candidates — including his own former staffer, Joy Fox — said in a recent interview that Fung was “the wrong person for the district. and that he should support House GOP leaders in “Pushing the far-right agenda.”

But Langevin refused to get negative about Fung, a former college classmate and two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate, saying, “I have nothing bad to say about Alan.”

And Fung said the duo reached an agreement not to discuss the race to replace Langevin.

“I’m not going to put him on the spot,” Fung said, adding that he was “just used to being in the minority party in a blue state.”

Indeed, Fung praised Langevin’s work to expand the protections originally provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and said he would like to preserve funding for existing disability programs if elected. But he has yet to offer anything specific on how to improve access and independence for people with disabilities.

Fung’s stances on LGBTQ rights and abortion access put him out of the GOP mainstream. He names blue state GOP governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, both critics of Donald Trump, as emblematic of how he would like to govern in Washington.

But Fung also said he would vote next year to elevate a House Republican leadership team that notably stands to his right. That makes other Democrats skeptical of Fung’s aspirations to make disability advocacy a more bipartisan issue.

As the popular mayor of Cranston, RI, Fung has “really avoided any issues where I think it will be very clear that he doesn’t represent where most Rhode Islanders are,” the rep said. David Cicilline (DR.I.) said in an interview.

A pioneering presence

When Langevin first arrived at Congress, he assumed he would have to navigate its halls alone despite significant accessibility limits. Turns out he had a powerful ally from the start in the current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, then the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee.

Hoyer, one of the original sponsors of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “rolled out the red carpet” for Langevin, the Rhode Islander recalled. The older man saw his colleague’s arrival in Congress as a direct result of this landmark legislation.

So Langevin didn’t have to enter the rowdy freshmen lottery for House’s office space; instead, Hoyer worked with the Capitol’s architect to secure a first-floor suite with space for his electric wheelchair. Next, a team got to work upgrading an accessible bathroom, and the Capitol’s carpentry shop built office furniture.

“He really made sure the barriers were broken down and the opportunity to serve was there,” Langevin said of Hoyer.

During Langevin’s 11 terms, portable wheelchair ramps were replaced with built-in ramps, and committee rooms were slowly renovated to meet accessibility standards. Later, the Capitol Visitor Center was built to comply with ADA guidelines.

But most of the heavy, narrow doors around the Capitol do not yet have push-button entrances, and recent audits have revealed thousands of accessibility barriers on campus. It was also nearly a decade before the loudspeaker stand was made accessible to Langevin, a quadriplegic since the age of 16 when a misfired weapon severed his spine.

A mechanical lift eventually elevated him to the pinnacle of House governance in 2010, allowing him to preside over the chamber.

His work is not done: there is no data available on the number of people working on Capitol Hill who have disabilities, despite efforts to study demographic representation in the congressional workforce. And it’s not uncommon to see a voter’s wheelchair that won’t fit through an office door or signs that lack Braille or audio guidance.

Pull him off the hill

Langevin’s work to help Americans with disabilities didn’t stop when the Capitol opened. He championed a slew of significant policy changes, joining allies such as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), which focuses specifically on expanding home and community care resources.

Other criteria not met include a ban on paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage and a US signature on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Even if Fung wins in November — he led all potential Democratic rivals for the 2nd District in a June poll at the Boston Globe/Suffolk University — he won’t arrive as the most prominent Republican on the defense of the People with Disabilities. That title belongs to Fitzpatrick, named by Langevin as the new co-chair of the Bipartisan Disability Caucus and a longtime champion for issues such as respite care and paralysis resources.

“He’s already started with me and been very proactive and forward-looking,” Langevin said.

But Fitzpatrick is increasingly an outlier in the Republican conference and does not bring the same clout as his co-chair predecessor, the late House Rep. Dean. Don Young (R-Alaska).

With Fitzpatrick potentially unable to provide swaths of GOP votes for bills or amendments on disability issues, fellow Disability Caucus co-chair Dingell is also expected to step in. She brings significant personal experience to the cause as the longtime caregiver of her late husband, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), another original ADA co-sponsor.

“When you actually live with mobility issues, you actually see the challenges and the barriers,” Dingell said in a recent interview. She said she wanted to “get in good trouble about it” with Fitzpatrick, citing the late civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Whether anyone will attempt to fill Langevin’s shoes alongside them remains to be seen. The incumbent endorsed Magaziner against four rivals in next month’s primary: Fox; Sarah Morgenthau, Commerce Department attorney; former progressive city council member and state legislator David Segal; and refugee and entrepreneur Omar Bah.

“No one can ever replace Jim,” Magaziner said in an interview. “But what I hope to do when I take office is to continue to stand up for the issues he stood up for.”

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.


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