Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Husband Takes Schiavo Fight Back to Politicians

The New York Times
Husband Takes Schiavo Fight Back to Politicians

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The curtains are still drawn tight at Michael Schiavo’s home on a quiet cul-de-sac here, and in some ways he remains as private and unknowable as when his wife Terri was the focus of a fervent national debate last year about life and death.

Yet Mr. Schiavo, who won a scorching legal battle to remove his brain-damaged wife’s feeding tube, also remains furious at lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington who intervened in the case. Hence the creation last winter of TerriPAC, a federal political action committee aimed against politicians who tried to stop Ms. Schiavo’s death, and the debut of Mr. Schiavo, a newly remarried, self-described normal guy, as a political weapon in this year’s midterm elections.

He is an unpolished speaker, sometimes abandoning sentences midstream or grasping for the right words. He did not vote or follow the news until recently, he says, and had never heard of a PAC until strangers suggested he start one late last year.

Still, Mr. Schiavo flew to Connecticut last month to help Ned Lamont, who defeated Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in the Democratic primary. Mr. Schiavo reminded voters that Mr. Lieberman had supported an emergency bill asking a federal court to consider reinserting Ms. Schiavo’s feeding tube days before she died in March 2005. Ms. Schiavo’s parents, who adamantly opposed her death and rejected Mr. Schiavo’s claim that she would have wished it, had pleaded with Congress and President Bush to intervene.

Mr. Schiavo also hand-delivered a caustic letter to Representative Marilyn Musgrave, Republican of Colorado, who outspokenly opposed Ms. Schiavo’s death, and endorsed her Democratic opponent, Angie Paccione. He attended a bloggers’ convention in Las Vegas in June to raise his profile in the online pundit world, playing host to a “privacy roundtable” at the Riviera Hotel.

“He is the human face of government intrusion,” said Ms. Paccione, explaining why she accepted Mr. Schiavo’s offer to appear with her at a news conference July 12. “We need more individual citizens like him to step up and put an end to it. People trust somebody who looks like them, talks like them and has their experience.”

Representative Jim Davis, a Tampa Democrat running to replace Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, widely distributed a letter that Mr. Schiavo wrote after endorsing him in June. Mr. Davis was among the most vigorous opponents of intervention in the Schiavo case, criticizing it on the House floor before Congress enacted the now-famous measure that President Bush cut short his vacation to sign.

Mr. Schiavo said his hastily written book, “Terri: the Truth” (Dutton Adult, 2006), was meant to be his final say on the events that dominated his life for 15 years. But Democratic operatives looking toward the November elections saw gold in his lingering anger.

When those operatives encouraged Mr. Schiavo not to disappear from the public eye, the man who had kept his mouth tightly shut throughout his quest to end his wife’s life — once even jumping an eight-foot-high fence behind his house to avoid the news media throng out front — decided he had more to share.

Driving him, he said, were television and newspaper clips from the end of the case, which he did not scrutinize until several months after his wife died.

“I didn’t pay attention to a lot of it in the last couple weeks because I spent my time with Terri,” Mr. Schiavo, 43, said at his preferred meeting place, a T.G.I. Friday’s near his house in a neighborhood misleadingly called Countryside. “But when I saw it all, I thought, this is absolutely out of control.

“I had to remind people that what this government did to me, they can do to you.”

Mr. Schiavo’s PAC has made no direct solicitations, but it has raised more than $26,000 in eight months, mostly in contributions of $100 or less made through its Web site, The committee is nearly broke at the moment, having contributed a total $4,000 to five Democratic candidates in Florida, Colorado and Texas and spent most of the rest on travel, Web site design and production of a video to help with fund-raising down the road.

“We are not a big financially powerful PAC yet,” said Derek Newton, a Democratic consultant in Miami who sold Mr. Schiavo on the PAC and now serves as its director. “We are just looking at what makes sense and how we can do it.”

Like Mr. Schiavo, Mr. Newton, 34, is learning as he goes. At first he did not realize that federal PAC’s must disclose donations only of $200 or more, and filed reams of unnecessary paperwork. Though working with Mr. Schiavo could perhaps raise his own profile, Mr. Newton, who ran a mayoral race in Miami in 2004, said he was motivated only by disgust for the politics of the Schiavo case.

The PAC is not just devoted to politics. Its Web site also provides information about living wills, which Ms. Schiavo did not have when her heart briefly stopped one night in 1990, causing her grievous brain damage. Organizers say information on eating disorders will be added to the site.

Mr. Schiavo believes his wife’s cardiac arrest was due to a vitamin deficiency brought on by bulimia, though her autopsy could not prove that. His former in-laws, Robert and Mary Schindler, have accused him of strangling her, though the courts rejected that claim.

The Schindlers and their surviving children, Bobby and Suzanne, are raising money through the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation Center for Health Care Ethics, a nonprofit group whose stated goal is to protect “the rights of disabled, elderly and vulnerable citizens against care rationing, euthanasia and medical killing.”

The foundation collected $379,855 in contributions last year, its lawyer said. Bobby Schindler, its director, said his family was not paying attention to Mr. Schiavo’s activities.

“Our family believes our fight with Michael is over,” he said.

Mr. Schiavo will focus on Florida candidates like Mr. Davis in the coming months, Mr. Newton said, but he may also offer help to James Webb, the Democratic challenger to Senator George Allen of Virginia; Claire McCaskill, the Democratic challenger to Senator Jim Talent of Missouri; and several Congressional candidates in Pennsylvania, his home state.

Mr. Schiavo said he would also make overtures to State Senator James E. King Jr., a Jacksonville Republican whose primary opponent, Randall Terry, led protests outside Ms. Schiavo’s hospice in the weeks before her death and rallied the anti-abortion movement against it.

A spokeswoman for Mr. King, whose North Florida district has many religious conservatives, said: “We are not making the events that surrounded the Terri Schiavo case here in Florida a focus of our race.”

Indeed, some campaign officials worry that joining up with the polarizing Mr. Schiavo could cut both ways. One person with a campaign that enlisted his help said the campaign received a number of angry phone calls afterward.

One of five brothers, Mr. Schiavo said he was raised to be a fighter, a quality on display throughout his book, which was written with Michael Hirsh. In it, he acknowledges losing his temper a lot during his court battle and repeatedly attacks his former in-laws.

His appetite for combat, which helps explain why he would sacrifice some of the privacy he demanded while Ms. Schiavo was alive, is also evident in his intense gaze and in the words he chose for her gravestone: “I kept my promise.”

Mr. Schiavo, who switched his voter registration to Democrat from Republican last year, said people had asked him repeatedly to run for office after his wife’s death.

But while the prospect holds allure, he said he was content with a lower-key role for now. He married Jodi Centonze, whom he met and started dating three years after Ms. Schiavo’s collapse, in January. He works three 12-hour shifts a week as a nursing supervisor at the Pinellas County Jail and helps raise his children, Olivia, 3, and Nicholas, 2.

“Maybe down the road,” he said of becoming a political candidate. “Maybe when everybody understands and everything is fixed.”