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Christopher C. Gagliardi

Christopher C. Gagliardi

Class of 2002

There has never been another election like it in the country: In 2009, a man with autism, Christopher Gagliardi of Englewood, New Jersey, ran for state Assembly against the district’s two incumbents. Though Gagliardi won only seven percent of the vote in last June’s Democratic primary, he considered that a victory in itself. And in the latest twist, one of his former opponents, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, has now hired him to serve on her staff.

Gagliardi is believed to be the only person with autism to have run for public office in the United States, according to the Autism Society of America. And other than Hillary Clinton’s going on to work for Barack Obama, there likely aren’t many other instances in politics where a candidate has hired an electoral opponent.

“I didn’t think of myself as an opponent of Valerie’s,” said Gagliardi, 29, who spoke his first words at age 7 and could not speak more complex sentences until age 16. “I didn’t consider it a campaign, but an adventure, to see how far I could go. It was an opportunity to challenge myself and to become a role model, to speak up for those like me. People with physical and mental challenges don’t have limitations, but expectations.”

Gagliardi inherited his a love of politics from his mother, Lynda Grace Monahan, who had worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. “Politics was in my blood,” he said.

When Gagliardi decided to run for the Assembly last year, his mother encouraged him but set conditions. “I said to him, here’s the deal,” she said. “Find out what the campaign involves.” She saw the campaign as an opportunity for her son to grasp that dreams take work. She told him, for instance, that she would help him collect the 800 signatures New Jersey law requires to get his name on the ballot – but only if he collected many on his own.

Gagliardi took on the task with gusto – and with the help of none other than Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle, who told him the various rules behind collecting the signatures and submitting the petitions.

“I didn’t have any campaign staff,” Gagliardi said, “just me and my mom. “I told people, this is who I am and I want to improve your life. The reaction was, ‘Who is he, where is he from, why is he doing this?’”

Monahan said that although “some people would look at us and walk away,” most voters were supportive and quickly signed the petitions. When they reached the 800 required signatures, Gagliardi asked his mom to go with him to file the papers in Trenton. She refused.

“I told him, no I won’t,” Monahan said. “If you’re going to run for office, you’ll have to learn how to get on the train to Trenton.” It was the first train ride Gagliardi ever took by himself.

That ride capped a remarkable lifetime journey for Gagliardi. “When Chris was a baby, he didn’t do the things babies do,” said his mother, noting that Christopher was diagnosed with autism as an infant. “He didn’t crawl. He screamed when I cuddled him. And at first I didn’t know what it was. There was no Google to look things up and find the word autistic.”

“It was hard for me to express how I felt,” said Gagliardi. “My first real sentence came at the age of 16, when I said, ‘Mom, I need a hug.’” That was the day Gagliardi had a particularly unpleasant encounter with school bullies. “I always picked on by bullies,” he recalled. “I was called slow, retarded, freak, you name it. It got to be overwhelming sometimes.”

“When finally he told me, ‘Mommy, I need a hug,’ that day I held my child for the first time ever,” Monahan said. “I thought, he knows I am his mommy. At the time I had breast cancer, but it was okay. Chris knew I was his mommy.”

Once Gagliardi started talking and came into his own – “his classmates saw Chris evolve before their eyes,” Monahan said – he went from bullied student to being elected student council president at Ridgefield Memorial High School. He was the first student with mental challenges to reach that pinnacle. As student council president, he helped to raise funds for families of September 11 victims, as well as for people with HIV/AIDS, by teaming up with Broadway Cares/Equality Fights AIDS.

Monahan says her son’s political bug came naturally to him without much pushing from her. “From the earliest I can remember,” she said, “he loved the rallies, took the bus to Democratic headquarters in Hackensack, liked making the calls for candidates. He wanted to vote when he was 14.”

After high school, Gagliardi wanted to go to college but couldn’t. No local college had a transitional program for those with developmental challenges.

“So I decided, you know what, I am going to put college on hold for right now,” he said. He looked for a job in downtown Englewood. He received job rejection after rejection, except from the Starbucks on Palisades Avenue. Seven years later, he still works there stacking cups, just a block away from Vainieri Huttle’s district office.

“I’ve known Chris for years,” Vainieri Huttle said, “from the time I was a freeholder” – a county legislator. Vaineiri Huttle had served as a Bergen County freeholder since 2001, before she was elected Assemblywoman in 2006. “I would see Chris at events where he would be singing opera or reading poetry. He caught my eye because people with special needs have always been close to my heart. So after the election (last year), I thought, who better to be outreach coordinator to people with special needs?”

Monahan said her dream for her son, when he was a child, was simply that he would someday learn to speak for himself. But he ended up doing much more.

“During the campaign,” she said, “Chris spoke for everyone who faces discrimination.”

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