He Launched His Political Career in Cincinnati — Now He's Fighting for Health Care Access While Battling ALS

Activist Ady Barkan has a very personal stake in the fight over affordable health care

click to enlarge Ady Barkan - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Ady Barkan

When Indian Hill resident Victoria Wulsin first met Ady Barkan during her run for a suburban Cincinnati congressional seat in 2006, she was struck by his enthusiasm, eloquence and — perhaps most of all — his talkative nature.

Gearing up for her first general election campaign against incumbent Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt in Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District, she enlisted the young Columbia University graduate as her communications director.

“At parades, he’d be the most active person, waving around, passing out flyers up and down the parade line,” Wulsin says. “But, most importantly, his eye was on the prize. ‘What is this about?’ It’s about better government. ‘People before politics:’ he came up with that. Other people have said it, but it’s sort of his brand.”

Barkan is still active and energetic. But he’s working against a relatively new obstacle.

In 2016, four months after the birth of his first child, Barkan was diagnosed with ALS — a progressive neurological disease that breaks down nerves controlling muscle activity. He has dedicated what may be his last days to fighting for affordable health care.

Most notably, he confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on a flight in December 2017, initiating an 11-minute conversation in which Barkan asked the senator how he could afford a ventilator to help him breathe if the GOP tax-reform bill led to budget cuts for those with disabilities.

Barkan’s crusade to support health care accessibility is taking him around the country, including a mid-summer homecoming back to the Queen City, where he got his start in politics.

A July 24 appearance at Gabriel’s Place, a community-based kitchen and urban farm in Avondale, was the 18th stop on Barkan’s coast-to-coast “Summer of Heroes” tour. The tour ran through Aug. 12 and was planned in support of his Be a Hero fund, which supports efforts to expand access to health care.

Beneath arched windows and two folk art paintings of angels, Barkan addressed the crowd without the microphone and amp he expected to have, reflecting on what has driven him to spend what may be his final days pushing for health care access — including his now-famous confrontation with Sen. Flake.

“I asked Flake to be a hero, stand up against the Trump administration and vote against the tax scam because of what it would do to our health care system,”Barkan said as he addressed candidates for local office and activists at Gabriel’s Place. “He listened, heard my story, saw my humanity and then promptly returned to Washington and forgot about me. Or, somebody decided that the campaign contributions and the needs of millionaires were more important.”

Because Flake refused to carry out his request, he’s now asking the American people to be heroes, hence the name of his tour and fund.

Barkan’s commitment landed him several high-profile appearances on his tour.

“I’ve been traveling with this great crew of organizers for 24 days,” he says. “We started in California, with a huge protest and rally (the Families Belong Together: Freedom for Immigrants march) of 70,000 people in Los Angeles, talking about the family separations at the border.”

En route to Cincinnati, he traveled a significant portion of the western United States, moving in a zig-zag from Nevada to Wisconsin to Indiana.

He’s most excited to recount the details of his stop in Minneapolis, where he shared the stage with his favorite member of Congress, Keith Ellison, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

“And, I got to speak (at Fifth Avenue), on the stage where Prince used to perform,” he says, stifling a goofy grin.

His Ohio itinerary didn’t end with his speech at Gabriel’s Place. In the same day, he addressed the members of the Greater Cincinnati Democrats over lunch at Blue Gibbon Chinese restaurant, and stopped by Rhinegeist in the evening, leading an event in which attendees could pledge to vote in exchange for a free drink.

The following day, a stop in Columbus included an appearance with state senator Charleta Tavares, who represents Ohio’s 15th District, and the release of an advertisement endorsing U.S. House candidate Danny O’Connor, who was running to represent Ohio’s 12th Congressional District in an Aug. 7 special election.

“I was shocked when the Republicans in Congress proposed a tax bill that would take away my health care to fund tax cuts for billionaires,” Barkan says in the ad, framed by the caption, “Dying Man Has a Message for Ohio Voters.”

At his Avondale appearance, Barkan took shots at congressman Steve Chabot, who represents Ohio’s 1st District.

“It’s my first time being back in 12 years,” Barkan says. “Steve Chabot was a terrible congressman back then, and he’s a terrible congressman now. Hopefully, we’ll have another midterm landslide victory.”

Beyond shade thrown at Chabot, Barkan directed most of his energy toward backing Democrat Richard Cordray, who is running for governor this November against Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Needing access to affordable health care is one of his primary reasons for supporting Cordray, Barkan said. His wheelchair alone — upon which he is totally dependent — costs between $32,000 and $35,000.

Cordray says he plans to support the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a statute that his running mate, former U.S. representative Betty Sutton, voted for in 2010. He also supports protecting Medicaid expansion.

“The ACA has allowed more than 666,000 Ohioans to gain coverage and more than 80,000 Ohioans under the age of 26 have been able to remain on their parents’ health care plans,” Cordray says.

DeWine also expressed a desire to keep Medicaid expansions earlier this month, though his plan would require healthy adults that it covers to work at least 20 hours a week, participate in a drug treatment plan or enroll in a job training program.

Barkan has also busied himself in recent weeks supporting other Democrats in Ohio, including the aforementioned O’Connor, who fought a pitched battle against Republican State Sen. Troy Balderson for a seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Republican who resigned earlier this year. O’Connor looks to have lost that race by a very slim margin, but will face Balderson again in the November general election.

Barkan’s focus isn’t solely in Ohio, of course. Barkan has also worked in other areas around the country supporting progressive causes and candidates.

But Barkan says he’s pushing for more than just a particular candidate or single policy. As he left Avondale to continue on his tour, he ended on a call to action for the audience.

“When I come into a room like this, I’m speaking to the most engaged and informed folks who care about politics,” he said. “There surely will be 100 percent voter turnout from the people in this room. But this room isn’t big enough to defeat Steve Chabot or elect Richard Cordray. The job becomes how we build a movement.

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