A Wheelchair Race for Candidate
By Mike Allen
The crowd seems friendly, but the seven stone steps down to the picnic shelter look harsh. So John H. Hager, the Republican candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor, bump, bumps his wheelchair down a boggy hill to the other side of the shelter, where he's blocked by an eight-inch-thick slab.
"Can you give me a little hold-on here? Pull back!" Hager tells his nervous hosts, who gingerly lift the chair's front wheels onto the slab. The food and fixings have been set on a picnic table with an attached bench, putting them almost out of Hager's reach, but he snags a burger as if diving for a catch.
In the field of six middle-aged white men seeking statewide office in Virginia this year, the 60-year-old retired tobacco executive from Richmond is what amounts to diversity.
Hager has used a wheelchair since age 36, when he contracted polio from an oral vaccine that had been given to his 3-month-old son. A moderate conservative who is treasurer of Virginia's Republican Party, Hager shows up on docks and ski slopes and has been carted up the narrow back stairs of the state party's headquarters in Richmond so many times that the 18 wooden steps are loose from being battered by his chair. He has finished 15 wheelchair marathons, and he once broke all 10 toes in a crash during a race.
"I've met a lot of challenges in my life," Hager told audiences here in tobacco and textile country near the North Carolina border. "It's been a trail of turning challenge into opportunity. Our message is one of empowerment and participation."
Hager, a chatty country-clubber who eats his hot dogs with a fork, told an interviewer in 1990 that advocacy for handicapped people was "not my bag." But now, with new advisers and under fire for his blunt apologias for the cigarette industry, he is running as a champion of the disabled.
Last week, he launched a summer-long "Rolling Across Virginia" tour, using his racing wheelchair to lead a pack of neighbors' bicycles and tricycles as a boom box throbbed the theme from "St. Elmo's Fire."
The tour is designed, one aide said, to build a public image of Hager as "the guy in the wheelchair who fought back." Hager's slogan: "The Courage to Lead."
National Republicans are looking to his candidacy to give their party a more inclusive face. "John shows we are an open and compassionate party," said Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Volunteers huff and tug to get Hager into the odd spots where the campaign trail takes a candidate. Each arrival and departure is a tense drama; a simple speech atop a flatbed at a barbecue involves a perilous transfer on a hydraulic tailgate.
"He can't work a room. He has to go early to get by the door," said Mike McElwain, a former aide.
But Hager's hurdles are more political than physical.
He was research director of American Tobacco Co., which made Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes, and he continues to defend tobacco executives even as public opinion and medical evidence have turned against them. He remains a consultant to Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., maker of Kool cigarettes, and is paid to lobby governors for the firm.
On a radio call-in show last month on Charlottesville's WINA-AM, a caller named Alex asked, "Do you believe that tobacco is addictive?"
"Not really," Hager replied. "Judging that over 20 million Americans have quit smoking, I don't know how you can call the product addictive."
So it's no wonder his handlers want voters -- especially in Northern Virginia, where support for new federal tobacco regulations is strongest in the state -- to look at Hager's wheelchair, not his work history. A biography from the Hager campaign calls him "the retired vice president of a multinational corporation."
"The personal story outweighs tobacco," asserted Michael D. Salster, the longtime Virginia GOP strategist who is Hager's spokesman.
Hager's Democratic opponent in November, L.F. Payne Jr., 52, a former congressman from Charlottesville who left office in January, says the wheelchair is irrelevant.
"This campaign ought to be conducted on issues and on telling folks what you've done and what you've accomplished," Payne said.
The lieutenant governor breaks ties in the Virginia Senate, which now is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats, giving the office huge clout. In speeches to Republicans, Hager promises to deliver "the 21st vote for the 21st century."
Some GOP leaders, skeptical of Hager's salability, are calling him "the accidental candidate." This spring, he had collected a tiny fraction of the money and endorsements that had been socked away by his rival for the nomination, T. Coleman Andrews III, of Fairfax County. Then in April, six weeks before the Republican primary, Andrews withdrew, citing a family medical concern. Hager automatically became the running mate of the party's candidate for governor, former state attorney general James S. Gilmore III.
Now Hager is working to organize disabled Virginia voters and their families -- a first for a statewide candidate in Virginia. His "Hager's Dozen" campaign platform includes "making the disabled community a full partner in Virginia's economic and social fabric."
He proposes state tax credits for families caring for children with disabilities and for employers who hire workers with disabilities.
Disabled people "don't necessarily want a handout," Hager said. "They want to be able to function like everyone else . . . then they want to make their own contribution."
At a fund-raiser at a riverfront mansion in Newport News, some supporters said they believe voters will see Hager as a hero.
"Divine intervention has helped John's recovery, so he can be a role model for the handicapped of this nation," said Emma P. Fitzhugh, 78, a retired seventh-grade teacher.
Others warned that Hager shouldn't make too much of his hardships. "It's going to come up in conversation, but it needs to be lightly touched on," said Dick Asher, 46, a York County developer. "Otherwise it'll seem like a crutch."
Hager, a third-generation tobacco executive, was a hotshot young workaholic when he was stricken. He golfed at Richmond's Country Club of Virginia; his wife, Maggie, belonged to the Junior League. In 1973, Hager was named an American Tobacco executive vice president -- one of the company's top four officials -- and prepared to move to New York.
He was still in Richmond one day when his back hurt so badly he lay down on his office floor to make calls. When he got home, he had to be carried to bed. By morning, paralysis had set in. Hager eventually was told he had gotten polio from his infant son's vaccine, probably through vomit or a soiled diaper.
American Tobacco's honchos rescinded his promotion and told him to stay in Richmond. "They didn't need an executive vice president in a wheelchair," he recalled. Hager worked back up to senior vice president before retiring in 1995.
Hager grumpily refers to the focus on his cigarette connection as "archaeology" and "kind of a bummer."
No matter how much his image meisters coach him, though, John Hager will always be a tobacco man. Driving himself across Southside Virginia last week in his silver 1990 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with hand controls, he admired the tobacco leaves in the fields.
A painting of a golden leaf adorns the living room of his $545,000 house in Windsor Farms, an enclave in Richmond where many estates have names. A framed, dried leaf adorns his hall, along with a "Tobacco Man of the Year" award.
Lawyers suing the nation's tobacco companies, who are pursuing their cases while Congress debates a settlement, had threatened to subpoena Hager to find out what he knew about American Tobacco's experiments with raising the level of nicotine in cigarettes. Last month, he voluntarily gave a 3 1/2-hour videotaped deposition.
Trying to turn attention from his career to his courage, Hager often campaigns with his wife, who has served on two federal disability boards and headed the state Department for Rights of Virginians with Disabilities.
"People said: 'You're a young bride. Now you can't dance, and John can't open the door for you,'" Maggie Hager said. "Now we're not only walking but running."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company