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CAMPAIGN '08

Trig's story is safe ground for GOP

The attention lavished on Palin's disabled son may help her ticket connect with voters.

September 08, 2008|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

HK Bain was home in suburban Denver last week, hardly paying attention to the television, when he heard a snippet of Sarah Palin's speech to the Republican convention that stopped him in mid-step.

"To the families of special-needs children all across this country," Palin said, "I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House."

Bain -- whose daughter Megan, a high school senior, is one of the more than 350,000 Americans who have Down syndrome -- couldn't believe his ears.

"I clapped as loud as I could," he said. "We need a friend in the White House."

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain touched on the issue in his acceptance speech Thursday, when he referred to a Pennsylvania couple whose youngest son has autism.

"Their lives should matter to the people they elect to office. They matter to me," the Arizona senator said.

In the days since McCain chose Palin, the governor of Alaska, as his vice presidential nominee on Aug. 29, his campaign has shown off her 5-month-old son, Trig, who was born with Down syndrome. The campaign has also let it be known that Palin has a nephew with autism.

The attention lavished on Trig, who can often be seen on TV being cradled by a family member, and who was on the covers of People and OK magazines, has helped the Republican ticket focus on an issue no one can debate: the need to help children with disabilities. The campaign almost surely will retell the story in commercials and appearances from now through election day, particularly as Democrats seek to portray McCain and Palin as conservatives who are out of touch with middle America.

McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, each have pressed to do more for disabled Americans. In the Senate, McCain co-sponsored the landmark Americans with Disability Act in 1990. Obama carried similar legislation as a state senator and sought increased spending for veterans with traumatic brain injury in the Senate.

An Obama campaign aide said the Illinois senator has a record of trying to make sure disabled children "are treated equally, to ensure that they have educational opportunities from which to choose, to protect them from abuses, and to make our nation accessible to all."

If the McCain-Palin ticket were to win, Palin would be the highest-ranking American politician since President Kennedy to have an immediate relative who had a disability. Kennedy's sister, Rosemary, had intellectual disabilities.

Another sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics, an organization with which the Shriver clan remains deeply involved.

"The more advocates there are for children with special needs, the better," said Anthony Shriver, founder of Best Buddies, which has raised money and provided services for children with such disabilities for 20 years.

But he is somewhat skeptical about Palin and the Republican Party.

"Historically, Republicans haven't been that interested," Shriver said. "To have an advocate in the Republican Party is a new twist and welcome addition."

Shriver said that last year his sister, California First Lady Maria Shriver, sent letters to the nation's governors asking them to employ people with intellectual disabilities. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made two such hires. Palin replied that she would refer the matter to an aide and did not commit to making a hire.

In Anthony Shriver's view, Palin "kind of blew us off."

Before Palin stepped onto the national stage, however, she already had identified herself with the issue.

On her official website as governor is a page on which visitors can leave "comments and blessings" for Trig. More than 600 messages have been left, with many well-wishers mentioning their own family members who have Down syndrome.

As governor, she can point to a track record. In the budget she signed into law this year, Palin approved a dramatic raise in spending on "intensive needs" children, as Alaska officials define them, including those who need nurses full time or cannot breathe without ventilators. When Palin took office in 2006, the state was spending $27,000 a year per child. The budget she signed this year raised that funding to $49,000 per child. In three years, the amount will rise to $74,000, which is roughly equal to the yearly per-child cost of educating special needs children.

The public school teachers union in Alaska, the National Education Assn.-Alaska, lauded Palin's action, although it has not endorsed her.

Several other disability programs received increases. And Palin has nearly doubled state spending to combat fetal alcohol syndrome and has increased spending on adult mental health services by 59%. She also has shifted about $1.25 million in state money to faith-based programs that provide social services.

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