New Jersey Herald
August 8, 2006
By John Brand

The relationship Paul and Patti Aronsohn shared as children went beyond the bonds of family ties and shared blood.

They were friends.

They were competitors.

They walked the family’s dogs together and talked.

Today, Paul Aronsohn is pursuing a Congressional seat in New Jersey’s 5th District, and his sister is a quadriplegic, the quiet sufferer of a disease that has robbed her of her independence, but not her spirit.

Although separated by their individual pursuits and by distance, their bond remains strong.

“He still puts a blanket on the floor next to Patti’s hospital bed, and that’s where he sleeps,” says their mother, Margot Aronsohn said during a telephone conversation from her Miami, Fla., home. “He’s very devoted to her and very patient with her.”

Paul Aronsohn, 39, is a long shot to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett, R-Wantage, who has beaten his last two Democratic opponents by a double-digit percentage. Garrett, a social and fiscal conservative, largely embodies the Republican values of the district, which includes most of Sussex County, all of Warren County, the heavily Republican portion of northern Bergen County and a sliver of Passaic County.

The Bergen County resident has been accused of grandstanding during his campaign, rolling out press releases about the high-profile, political celebrities that speak on his behalf at fundraisers. Aronsohn’s previous political experience working for the Clinton administration and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.Y., has given him connections that enable him to attract well-known Democrats such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former presidential hopeful Gen. Wesley Clark and Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

Yet his 42-year-old sister’s condition is something Aronsohn has kept under wraps even though his family says it clearly influences his political views.

Aronsohn has a short commentary on his Web site in which he calls enhancing the quality of life for an estimated 40 to 50 million Americans suffering from physical or developmental disabilities “the great Civil Rights challenge of our era,” but does not mention Patti.

Two weeks ago, he sent out a press release recognizing the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and left her name off it.

Aronsohn also supports public funding for embryonic stem cell research, but has not mentioned that advances in the field could hold hope for his sister.

“A good number of politicians are influenced by the people they know — if not their immediate family, then close friends or neighbors,” said political analyst David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University.

“Generally, they speak more knowingly and are more sensitive to an issue, but they’ve got to be careful to not take that and exploit family members.

“Aronsohn seems to have handled the situation well.”

Patti Aronsohn’s doctors have suggested the possibility that embryonic stem cell research may help reverse her condition, or stop it from progressing.

“How do you know unless you try?” Margot Aronsohn said of embryonic stem cell research. “She’s supposed to be dead.”

Margot Aronsohn suspects her daughter had the disease — diagnosed in 1990 as spino-cerebellar degeneration — at birth. Patti Aronsohn learned at a slower pace and was among the crop of students in the late 1970s who were put in the nation’s first “special education” classes.

Physically, Patti Aronsohn was a bit uncoordinated, but still was able to swim, dance and play softball, an interest she shared with her brother, who played baseball.

“She was just this busy little thing,” her mother said.

After graduating from a high school in Fort Lee, Patti Aronsohn began attending classes at New York University, which taught special education students how to work in various areas of child care. She completed the program in two years.

She got a job at the United Nations Day Care Center in New York City, but began to trip and fall in 1988. Meanwhile, Paul Aronsohn was a 22-year-old graduate student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., planning a Senate internship with Bill Bradley.

A year later, Patti Aronsohn moved to Virginia with her mother, who wanted to continue working for the Macy’s sales department in an office near the Pentagon. Patti began working at the Pentagon’s day care center, but again began tripping and falling at work.

Neurologists ruled out multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other known disorders. The day care fired her, concerned that she would be unable to quickly react to an emergency situation in the classroom, her family said.

Over the next decade, Paul Aronsohn came into his own, earning a master’s degree from the university, working the Senate internship, and a low-paying job for the Clinton administration. By 2001, he would work as a spokesman for then-Gov. James E. McGreevey.

Meanwhile, Patti Aronsohn’s disease progressed.

She began walking in the mid-1990s with leg braces, a cane, crutches and a walker before doctors suggested a wheelchair would make it easier for her to get around. While using a walker, she still would put herself in a swimming pool and get exercise.

Today, she eats through a feeding tube and has little use of her “constantly clenched, tremoring hands,” her half brother, Robert Zuckerman wrote in a book, “Kindsight.” Two doctors have told Margot Aronsohn that they’re surprised her daughter is still alive.

Between 2000 and 2003, Patti Aronsohn’s condition worsened: She started drooling, moaning and holding her head bent at an awkward angle. But doctors recently learned those symptoms were a side effect of an anti-psychotic medication prescribed to her following the death of a close family friend. Her condition today is slightly better, but she still eats through a feeding tube and has few motor functions.

“She talks up a storm, but it’s hard to understand what she’s saying,” said Zucker-man, a 51-year-old photographer who shoots motion picture stills in Hollywood. “Some people say there might be hope in stem cell research.”

Garrett, Aronsohn’s opponent, is against public funding for embryonic stem cell research, saying funds should be devoted to the more proven method of adult stem cell research.

Aronsohn bristles when talking about President Bush’s recent decision to use the first veto of his two terms on a bill that would expand funding limits placed on embryonic stem cell research in 2001.

“She’s struggled through life,” Aronsohn said. “It’s devastating, and to think the potential to help enhance her life exists and we’re not doing everything we can to realize that potential. I don’t know how we could do that to somebody.

“And we’re not alone. So many families struggle with this.”

If he is successful, Aronsohn promises to use the bully pulpit of the Congressional seat to push for improving the rights of the disabled community.

Margot Aronsohn said she doesn’t consider herself a political or religious person, but her daughter’s condition has forced her to watch politics and pray. She has hope in her son, whether he wins the election in November or another one down the road.

“We always pray for a miracle. Miracles do happen,” Margot Aronsohn said. “I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to get up and walk again. I would love to see her use her walker again and be able to get up and move.”

She talks again to her daughter, while the reporter waits on the phone, and reminds her that her brother is the one who calls every day and blows her a kiss over the phone.

“Even when he’s president,” Margot Aronsohn said, “he will sleep on that floor in Patti’s room.”