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A Widow's Fight

The Murder of Her Husband Turned Carolyn McCarthy Into a Gun Control Advocate, a Candidate--and Away From the Republicans

July 05, 1996

MINEOLA, N.Y. — Carolyn McCarthy had been anguishing for weeks over whether to challenge a Republican congressman here in the heart of the most effective GOP machine in the country when an offer came for her to meet with President Clinton.

The president, she was told, wanted to persuade her to get into the race.

But McCarthy, a Long Island homemaker whose life was warped by tragedy, politely declined the invitation to the White House.

She needed to make up her own mind. Later she told a friend, "My God, the president wants to talk to me and I said no. Where am I? Is this a movie or my real life?"

McCarthy's ordinary suburban existence hasn't been quite the same since Dec. 7, 1993, the day her husband, Dennis, and their only child, Kevin, were caught in the cross-fire of the Long Island Rail Road massacre.

At 6:10 p.m. that day Colin Ferguson, a 35-year-old pathologically bigoted man from Brooklyn, rose from his seat as the commuter train approached a station not far from the McCarthys' tiny clapboard house on Nancy Street, and began firing a 9-millimeter Ruger semiautomatic pistol, methodically shooting passengers, left to right, right to left. Within three minutes, Dennis McCarthy was dead, slumped over the lap of son Kevin. Each had a bullet in his head. In all, five died and 19, including Kevin, were wounded.

"That day changed my life forever," Carolyn McCarthy told reporters last May when she announced that, yes, she would run against GOP incumbent Daniel Frisa in New York's Fourth Congressional District. His vote to repeal a ban on the kind of ammunition clip used by Ferguson had been more persuasive than anything the president could have said.

"It's a life I know I can never go back to," she told reporters standing on a platform near her oversized garden. "But one thing I do know is I want to make sure that no family has to go through what we went through ever again."

And now the widowed McCarthy--mother and nurse turned gun control advocate, lifelong Republican turned Democratic candidate--and the tall, charming freshman Congressman Frisa--who distinguished himself in Washington by the money he raised from special interests and the friends he made among conservative GOP leaders--are in one of the highest profile congressional races of 1996. Both national parties are vowing to pour money and resources into this contest.

To the Democrats, McCarthy has all the advantages of being an outsider but with name recognition not only within her own district but as far as Washington because of her lobbying for the assault-weapons ban. The Democrats would also like to make McCarthy a symbol of moderate Republicans' disenchantment with House Speaker Newt Gingrich's anti-government, shut-it-down movement and particularly of how Republican women part with the conservatives on issues such as gun control, abortion and the environment. And the Democrats are betting Frisa, who voted 93.5% of the time with the leadership, may be further right than his district on such issues.

"We've got a good shot at Frisa," said a Democratic Party official in Washington who asked not to be quoted by name. "He's had bad votes on clean water and clean air; he voted to cut student loans and cut Medicare in a way that hurts New York. For middle-class folk, it's a tough record to defend in November."

But McCarthy has yet to completely embrace the Democrats. Although the ballot will list her as a Democrat, she has refused to give up her GOP registration. During an interview in her living room, eerily within earshot of trains whistling through the Mineola station, she rarely mentioned Frisa. Her opponent seemed to be Gingrich and what he has done to "my party."

"What I'm working for is not to have another vote for Newt," she said.

But Republicans insist the Long Island race will prove the potency of what the Gingrich leadership has been agitating for in Washington these past two years: to cut spending, to lower taxes, to make government manageable.

"People in Nassau County ultimately are interested in taxes and in their pocketbooks, and Frisa gets that," said Joseph Mondello, leader of the legendary Nassau County Republican Party that people feel compelled to join if they want to get their street fixed, their kid a summer job or a cabana on the beach.

Mondello admitted that he has no reason to support Frisa since he foiled the party twice by challenging a GOP incumbent. But support Frisa he will.

"He's worked hard enough," Mondello said. "Voters may feel sorry for Carolyn McCarthy and what she's been through . . . but that's not all there is."

*

Yet for McCarthy "what she's been through"--the horror of her husband's death; the pain of watching their 28-year-son cope with brain damage, a paralyzed arm, fingers that don't quite work; and the politicization that transformed her into the Sarah Brady of the 1990s--seemed to culminate on March 22 when the House voted to repeal the ban on 19 varieties of assault-type weapons.

"I just broke down," McCarthy said.

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