Missouri State Rep. Jeff Grisamore uses the death of his infant daughter to ask for campaign cash
Upon taking office last year, Missouri State Rep. Jeff Grisamore went to work for the vulnerable. The first bill he sponsored would have expanded the number of families eligible to receive child-care assistance.
Grisamore, a Lee’s Summit Republican, didn’t let party politics stand in the way of what he likes to call “responsible compassion.” More than half of the bill’s 56 co-sponsors were Democrats.
The bill died in committee, but Grisamore has continued to work on behalf of people who face adversity. Five of the 10 bills he has sponsored in this session concern the disabled.
Grisamore says the disabled and the mentally ill should receive the first portions of the state budget. “Instead, they end up having to fight for crumbs off the table,” he tells me.
It’s about 6 p.m., and Grisamore is sitting in a chair in his office at the Capitol, a Diet Coke within reach. The House has broken for dinner. With a long list of bills on the docket, Grisamore expects the workday to last until midnight.
This is a busy time for state lawmakers. In addition to their legislative duties, there’s an election to consider. Grisamore recently sent out an “urgent message” asking for campaign contributions.
“Fighting for individuals with disabilities — especially children — and their families is my highest priority,” the e-mail began.
Grisamore then connected his request for money to the death of his daughter.
“This passion is driven by our 7th child, Rebekah, who died November 26th, 2002 from complications of Prader-Willi Syndrome at 11 months and 18 days.” A picture of Rebekah appears at the top of the e-mail, along with Grisamore’s head shot.
Prader-Willi syndrome is a genetic disorder characterized by obesity and decreased mental capacity and muscle tone. At birth, children who suffer from the condition appear small and floppy. An intense desire for food develops later, leading to excessive weight gain and associated health problems.
Rebekah suffocated after her body failed to digest a bottle of milk. Grisamore and his wife, Mary, arranged for her organs and tissue to be used for research. A feature story last month in The Kansas City Star explained that she was the only infant with Prader-Willi available for study.
Grisamore tells me that Rebekah’s life and death inform a lot of what he tries to do in Jefferson City. A Bible-school graduate who is active in mission and nonprofit work, Grisamore says he wants to be an “advocate for the elderly,” “a champion for children” and a “defender of the disabled.” Grisamore says his daughter’s plight “took [his] empathy and commitment for families with special needs to a whole new level.”
Grisamore’s commitment is admirable on its face. But at what point does his talking about his daughter become exploitive?
Last November, Grisamore wrote an “As I See It” piece for the Star stressing the importance of organ donation. The column began with a description of the Grisamore family weeping, praying and launching balloons at Rebekah’s grave site.
The recent feature story about Rebekah’s gift to science closed with Grisamore talking about organ-donation legislation he’s trying to pass.
And then comes the fundraising letter.
“To continue my fight for the disabled and their families, I need to raise significant funds for my re-election this year,” Grisamore writes.
Encouraging people to donate their organs is one thing. Using Rebekah’s story to hustle for campaign cash seems to be quite another.
Grisamore tells me that he sent the message to four people who work with and on behalf of those with special needs. But with a boldface request that readers forward it, the e-mail was obviously intended for a wider audience.
He says he’s trying to appeal to a base of the disabled and their families. What others might find crass he describes as an effort to build grass-roots support. “The reality of politics is that in order to be re-elected, you’ve got to raise money,” he says.
A suburban evangelical and father of eight, Grisamore can surprise you. His coherent rejoinders to criticism on left-leaning blogs suggest a brand-name law degree, not matriculation at Trinity International University, a divinity school in Deerfield, Illinois. (Last fall, lawyer and Democrat Steve Bough lauded Grisamore for responding “thoughtfully, intelligently and professionally” to a post on Blog CCP that took Grisamore to task on a variety of issues, including his pay as a nonprofit executive.) Grisamore’s gelled hair and five o’clock shadow bring to mind a raffish lobbyist more than a churchgoing Republican.
And unlike many conservatives, Grisamore believes that government can accomplish things.
He talks about a constitutional amendment to mandate spending for those with disabilities and special needs. “I’m here to create a revolution for these folks,” he says.
But one advocate for autism awareness regards Grisamore with the mistrust that nonbelievers hold for televangelists.
Sherri Tucker, co-founder of the Lee’s Summit Autism Support Group, says Grisamore has refused to meet with her group unless the event is held in public and he takes credit for work that her group is doing.
“Everything he does is to further his political career,” she says.
Tucker says she’s also put off by the frequency with which Grisamore talks about Rebekah. She says he mentioned Rebekah at a rally for disability rights in Jefferson City last month.
Grisamore says he hopes that his family’s experience can be an inspiration to others.
Grisamore tells me that he regrets having offended anyone with the letter. But given the chance to second-guess his decision to include Rebekah’s story in a solicitation for donations, Grisamore says he would not have done anything differently.
“Rebekah is very much a part of all this,” he tells me.
Still, Grisamore might be wise to consider the hell that some right-wing commentators have unleashed on other public figures who have lost children. Ann Coulter once suggested that because John Edwards spoke about his son Wade so much, he needed an “Ask me about my son’s death in a horrific car accident” bumper sticker. Glenn Beck called grieving Iraq War mother Cindy Sheehan a “tragedy pimp.”
These attack artists might not be the most mainstream Republicans. But they’ve undoubtedly helped members of Grisamore’s party dominate many statehouses — where, collectively, they’ve made life tougher for the vulnerable people for whom Grisamore says he’s fighting.
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