Extraordinary Anastasia Somoza captivates DNC

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]

BY ERIC MINK

Anastasia Somoza was on television last week, delivering the best speech you probably didn’t see at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She spoke in a strong, clear and only slightly nervous voice with conviction, heart and authenticity.

It was an hour before broadcast network coverage started on July 25, Day 1 of the four-day event. Somoza was the 11th of 20 scheduled prime-time speakers, some of whom –  Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken – were somewhat better known than she.

The convention’s disembodied program voice announced her name and her hometown, New York City, and the 32-year-old advocate for the rights of people with disabilities steered her powered wheelchair to the center of the vast stage and turned it to face the assembled thousands. (Watch her speech on YouTube at tinyurl.com/z49lclu).

“I first met Hillary as First Lady,” Somoza began, “on a visit to the White House. I was 9 years old. … Over the past 23 years, she has continued to serve as a friend and mentor, championing my inclusion and access to classrooms, higher education and the workforce.”

Somoza devoted about three-quarters of her five-minute speech to the enduring personal relationship that developed between her and Hillary Clinton after that White House visit early in 1993. Even then, there was no missing the inherent potential of the quietly assertive 9-year-old who, with her twin sister, Alba, was born prematurely with spastic cerebral palsy.

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Today, Somoza said of the Democrats’ nominee for president, “she sees me as a strong woman, a young professional, a hard worker and a proud daughter of immigrants – my father from Nicaragua and my mother from Ireland.”

Having established her credentials and closeness to the nominee, Somoza praised Clinton’s depth of understanding of the challenges facing people with disabilities and how the whole country benefits when it helps them manage those challenges.

In closing, Somoza, a graduate of Georgetown University and the London School of Economics, addressed the absent Clinton directly: 

“On the eve of the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’m proud to be with you, Hillary. Thank you for showing me how to live boldly with a courageous heart.”

The cheers of the standing crowd in the hall – applauding Somoza’s inspiring presence as much as her eloquence – went on for a good minute. Somoza, smiling broadly, was clearly pleased and, it seemed, a little surprised.

It was no surprise, given the heat of the presidential campaign, that much of the coverage of Somoza’s irresistibly guileless speech focused on a minutelong passage in the middle about Clinton’s Republican opponent, Donald Trump.

“I fear the day we elect a president who defines being American in the narrowest possible terms, who shouts, bullies and profits off of vulnerable Americans,” she said. “I honestly feel bad for anyone with that much hate in their heart.”  

Somoza said she was confident that American voters in November would choose “genuine strength and thoughtful leadership over fear and division.” 

Concluding the section on Trump, Somoza flipped around a line he had repeated in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in Cleveland four days earlier when he told supporters, “I am your voice.” 

Somoza countered: “Donald Trump doesn’t see me, he  doesn’t hear me and he definitely doesn’t speak for me.” 

Trump infamously tried to speak for Serge Kovaleski, though. Nine months ago, speaking at a rally in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Trump flailed and bent his arms spastically and distorted his voice in ridicule of Kovaleski, a reporter for The New York Times with arthrogryposis, a congenital muscular disability that affects the movements and joints in his arms.

As I and others wrote not long after, Trump’s ugly mockery of Kovaleski was part of a web of untruths in which Trump had ensnared himself. The candidate had told a false story claiming that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But there was no evidence that backed up the tale.

Trump insisted that a 2001 story Kovaleski had written for The Washington Post supported his fantasy about the New Jersey Muslims. But the story clearly said no such thing, which is what Kovaleski told other reporters who called to ask about Trump’s claim.

For Trump, Kovaleski’s honesty was enough to justify cruelly making fun of him, even though Trump denied that’s what he was doing and denied that he’d ever met the reporter. (In fact, Kovaleski had interviewed and covered Trump for years as a staff writer for the New York Daily News.)

Mocking Kovaleski naturally cemented Trump’s reputation among people with disabilities and those involved in advocacy work for them. The extraordinary Anastasia Somoza counts as both, and there is an extraordinary story, complete with video evidence, behind the initial visit to the White House she mentioned at the beginning of her convention speech.

Somoza, it turns out, was one of a small number of students selected from about 20 elementary, middle and high schools – public and private – and a few community groups to participate in a two-hour Saturday morning ABC News special called “President Clinton: Answering Children’s Questions.” 

The session, anchored by the late Peter Jennings, took place in the East Room of the White House and was broadcast Feb. 20, 1993. (Watch it on YouTube at tinyurl.com/ze7tpou.)

The 9-year-old Somoza appears about 49 minutes and 30 seconds into the program, when she tells President Bill Clinton about a problem her family is having. She says that her twin sister, Alba, can neither speak nor use her hands but communicates well with a special computer. Even so, Anastasia says, the school has refused their parents’ request that Alba be allowed to join other students in a regular classroom. Instead, Alba must remain in a special classroom with students who cannot communicate nearly so well.

Clinton briefly explains to Anastasia the limits of presidential authority over local schools but says, coyly, that the fact the two of them have talked about it on television might end up getting Alba the chance to show what she can do in a typical classroom setting. 

Anastasia listens carefully and responds clearly to all of Clinton’s questions. 

“Thanks for sticking up for your sister,” the president says and asks the others in the East Room to join him in giving Anastasia a round of applause.

And, remarkably, there in the eyes of the 9-year-old Anastasia is the clear image of the 32-year-old woman she has become, the person who commanded the convention stage in Philadelphia last week.