America's Mrs Lawrence goes to the polls

David Usborne,New York
Tuesday 06 October 2015 16:40

The candidate winces as journalists place their tape-recorders before her and a photographer crouches to take some shots. The polls say she is on her way to a seat in the House of the Representatives. But hers is not the bearing of a politician lusting for power.

In the US elections there can be no more reluctant a campaigner than Carolyn McCarthy. A nurse and a registered Republican, Mrs McCarthy is running as the Democrat candidate in the Fourth District of New York, just to the east of New York City on Long Island. But there are few voters on the island, or indeed across the nation, who do not know what has brought her here.

Mrs McCarthy is running because of one tragic night, two and a half years ago, when a lone gunman went berserk on a train from Manhattan and shot dead six commuters. One was her husband, Dennis. Among the seriously injured was her son, Kevin.

The parallels with Frances Lawrence, whose husband Philip was murdered last December by a teenager outside the London school where he was headmaster, are striking. Mrs Lawrence last week called for a moral crusade. Mrs McCarthy, 50 at the time of the murder, quickly turned her grief into a campaign against gun ownership.

She only began pondering running for Congress in March this year when, to her fury, her district's Republican incumbent, Dan Frisa, cast a vote in favour of repealing a ban on assault weapons. A few weeks later, the House Democrat leader, Richard Gephardt, personally called her to ask her to become a candidate. She did not even know who he was.

On this occasion, at a pre-election candidates' debate (for which Mr Frisa is a no-show), Mrs McCarthy does not speak directly of the massacre. Kevin, though, whom she has nursed from paralysis to nearly complete recovery, is in the audience.

She mentions Dennis once. In answering a question on the environment, she relates a night when he caught a sea bass off Long Island a few years ago and, in acknowledgement of their scarcity, threw it back.

A shy person, Mrs McCarthy is not finding the campaign easy. It is exhausting and, above all, she has loathed the business of raising funds.

"They said this would be fun," she jokes in an interview after the debate. "Skiing is fun. Playing golf is fun. This isn't fun."

Asked about her decision to enter politics, she says: "You don't just wake up one morning and say `I'm going to run for Congress'. It took six weeks for me to agree to do it. But I had to do it. I had to force myself to do it and I know my husband would be very proud of me."

From a national point of view, her candidacy is important. The Democrats have a chance to win back control of the House and races such as this will be pivotal.

Her opponent, Mr Frisa is one of the 1994 Republican freshmen who travelled to Congress to do battle for Newt Gingrich and the Contract for America and who now find themselves on the wrong side of a changed of electoral mood.

While she is nine points ahead of Mr Frisa in the latest polls, Mrs McCarthy is vulnerable to the charge that she is a one-issue candidate.

She knows it but shows no sign of embarrassment. "Gun violence is the end product of what is wrong with this country," she tells the appreciative debate audience.

Yesterday she received the endorsement of the New York Times: "Her obvious strength of character, her progressive views on social issues and uncommon empathy for the needier constituents would make her an outstanding representative."

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