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Small-town heritage reflected in Sen. Graham's service

Monday, October 20, 2008 | 5:42 p.m. CDT; updated 10:57 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Chuck Graham

Sen. Chuck Graham made his way to the front of the crowd at a hog-eating auction fundraiser. More than 50 supporters had come to hear the incumbent 19th District senator speak.

Chuck Graham

RESIDENCE: 102 W. Green Meadows Road

PERSONAL: 43. Single.

PARTY AFFILIATION: Democrat

CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: chuckgraham.com

OCCUPATION: 19th District state Senator

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

BACKGROUND: Before his election to the Senate, Graham was the representative for the 24th District Missouri House of Representatives for two terms. Previously, Graham was the Missouri coordinator for the ADA project, which helps businesses and institutions comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1990, he was recognized for his work to help pass the ADA act.

What’s the Job?
State senators must be at least 30 years old, residents of Missouri for at least three years and residents of their district for at least one year. There are 34 state senators, each of whom represents about 150,000 people. State senators are limited to two four-year terms. Senators sponsor, propose, consider, debate and vote on legislation in the General Assembly. The legislative session begins in January and lasts until early May. Most senators have staff members who help them represent constituents and answer their questions. The 19th District includes Boone and Randolph counties. The salary is $40,496. Senators also receive per diem expenses.

MORE ONLINE

For audio Q&As and videos of 19th District state Senate candidates Kurt Schaefer, Chuck Graham and Christopher Dwyer, go to columbiamissourian.com. And for video interviews with the candidates conducted by KOMU-TV8 anchor Jim Riek, go to smartdecision08.com.


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The fundraiser came a day before Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden was to appear in Jefferson City. Graham didn't miss the chance to make a quick joke about the Delaware senator's September visit to the Activities and Recreation Center in Columbia, when Biden erred by asking Graham to "stand up," unaware that Graham is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair.

"I thought it would be fitting to introduce the senator this time," Graham told his audience. The crowd laughed as Graham began a speech outlining the importance of higher education in Missouri.

Graham's casual tone and approachability are among the qualities that he said have made him a strong representative. Graham has represented the 19th District, which includes Boone and Randolph counties, for the past four years in the Missouri Senate and held the 24th District seat in the Missouri House during the eight years before that. Graham is seeking election to a second Senate term on Nov. 4.

Although he was a little surprised by the Biden mistake, Graham said he tries not to let his disability get in the way of his job.

"It's funny how often I hear friends or colleagues say, "Oh, I forgot you were in a wheelchair," Graham said. "I mean they feel bad, but it's probably the best compliment they can give me because they see me first before they start to think about my disability."

In his bid for re-election, Graham is focusing on the issues of education and health care in Missouri. During his first term in the Senate, he introduced a bill that would have created a voting position for a student on the UM System Board of Curators. It worked its way through the General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Matt Blunt. He said re-filing it next year will be one of the first things he does if citizens decide to extend his contract for four more years.

Graham was born in St. Louis but grew up in the small town of Louisiana, Mo., along the Mississippi River. His parents owned a small woman's clothing store called Little G and later a T-shirt shop that he ran during high school. Ever since he ran for class government in fifth grade and met his state representative on a field trip with his Boy Scout troop, Graham has had his sights set on a career in government.

"When people in small communities reach out, I understand," Graham said, referring to his small town roots. "Because sometimes they have smaller budgets than families. And they have to accomplish things that need to be done."

It was with that thought in mind that Graham helped the town of Renick raise more than $5,000 for a tornado siren by negotiating with local insurance companies for money. The need for a siren became apparent after a tornado ripped through the tiny Randolph County town in 2006, killing two Renick residents.

"Some people think getting a tornado siren for Renick isn't a big deal because there aren't that many people there,” Graham said, “but for the people who live there and experienced loss because they didn't have one, that’s a tremendous deal."

When he was young, Graham satisfied his competitive spirit by playing football, participating in track and field and being involved in student government. He was 16 when he lost control of the car he was driving and suffered a broken back. After the accident, Graham chose to go to the University of Illinois to play for its wheelchair basketball team. Graham graduated in 1987 with a degree in broadcast journalism.

MU lacked a wheelchair basketball program at the time. Graham said he’s proud of the work he did to win some financial backing for the team it has now. After college, he worked as a disabilities community organizer in Illinois and helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act that was signed by the president in 1990.

Graham attended that signing ceremony. He has a history with disabilities that traces back before his own accident. His mother had muscular dystrophy, and his brother was in a separate car accident that left him with a spinal cord injury. Both his parents died earlier from small-cell lung cancer.

Graham said he learned best from his mother how to live with physical challenges.

"She always lived her life with grace, class and dignity," Graham said. She taught him that "there's always somebody who has it harder than me, so I don't focus on ‘Woe is me,’ because I have seen people who have it a lot harder than I do. I would say the strength I have learned since then is perseverance. And I like to fight for the little guy, or someone who is overlooked."

After school in Illinois, Graham moved to Columbia to work with an ADA technical assistance program at MU, helping businesses comply with the act. In 1996, he ran for the 24th District House seat, beating out Llona Weiss in a Democratic primary and Republican Donna Spickert in general election.

"Chuck and I agree on a number of issues, which made that race really interesting," Weiss said. "He knows politics. He knows how to work the political process and get things done legislatively."

Graham won re-election three times and served in the House through 2004. He then won the state Senate seat for the 19th District.

Elaine George, a retired day-care worker from Hallsville, said she turned to Graham and his staff when her town needed help establishing a fairground.

"He's always just been willing, if you have a problem and you need assistance," George said. "He helped get our fairgrounds in Hallsville, and he supports our 4-H program. He's always a supporter there in purchasing kid's things."

Although Graham has been a popular politician, he suffered a setback last October when he was involved in a three-car accident in south Columbia and arrested for driving while intoxicated. He later pleaded guilty. He agrees with his opponents that his behavior was inappropriate.

"It was certainly an error in judgment, and I am embarrassed by it,” Graham said. “And it's certainly not something that is going to happen again."

Graham has chosen not to have a second job outside the Senate because of time constraints and rules that prohibit him from working for government entities, which would exclude working for MU again. With election day less than a month away, he isn't worrying about what he will do if he doesn’t win a second Senate term.

"I haven't considered it,” he said. "One of the things I learned from my accident is I don't think in hypotheticals. I could have sat around that hospital room and thought: ‘What if I did this or that?’"

"But it doesn't change what's in front of me. And the reality is I have 25 days till the election. And if the people decide to extend my contract for the next four years, then that's what I'll do. You have to have that single-minded focus to be successful. We'll find out somewhere around 8:30 on the night of Nov. 4, and from there you make the next set of decisions."


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