111th ASSEMBLY DISTRICT — Though Democratic Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara and Republican Schenectady County Legislator Brian McGarry have significant ideological differences, both men are motivated by health issues as they seek voters' support ahead of the November election.
For Santabarbara, his son Michael's autism diagnosis has led him to become the chairman of the Assembly's Subcommittee on Autism Spectrum Disorders, which was created through legislation he proposed in 2016.
McGarry, who holds more libertarian views on the role of government in health care, has not let stage four prostate cancer prevent him from hitting the campaign trail. Across Montgomery, Albany and Schenectady counties, McGarry says, he's knocked on more than 4,000 doors as of the beginning of September.
Both candidates recalled indelible memories of discovering the diagnoses, and how the new realities led them to hone in on their missions and make the most of the time they had with their loved ones.
Growing up in Schenectady's Mont Pleasant neighborhood, and as the son of Italian immigrants, Angelo Santabarbara did not speak English until first grade. He said growing up in an Italian-speaking home with his extended family, and being a shy kid, kept him from learning English sooner.
"My teachers didn't give up on me, and that's why I'm here today," Santabarbara said over a plate of huevos rancheros at Mexican Radio on a late September night.
After graduating from Schalmont High School, Santabarbara served in the Army Reserves for eight years before getting a civil engineering degree from the University at Albany. Shortly after he and his wife, Jennifer, bought their first home in Rotterdam, they had their first child, Michael.
“And one day, things changed for me, and that’s something I’m never going to forget," said Santabarbara, 46. "I remember the words in my head repeating over and over again -- my wife saying to me, 'There’s something wrong with Michael. He's not talking.'”
While Santabarbara himself was a shy kid, he quickly realized his son's introversion was much different. Michael, then 3, was diagnosed with autism, and Santabarbara began steeping himself in a disorder he only had a cursory knowledge of before.
The numbers began to shock him and continue to astound today: One in 59 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism, up from one in 68 in 2012, with the figure doubling in less than 20 years.
After paying his dues at the County Legislature, Santabarbara began to carve out a unique role for himself in the Assembly, motivated by his personal experience.
"My message at the state Capitol is simple: We cannot cut corners when it comes to direct care," Santabarbara said, citing low pay and high turnover rates for the workers who tend to more than 128,000 New Yorkers with developmental disabilities. "Around this time of year, I'm asked the question, 'Why are you running for re-election?' For me, there are 128,000 reasons, and they're all counting on me to be their voice at our state Capitol. For me, it's not a job. It's love."
Brian McGarry is a former sixth-grade and high school teacher with the Duanesburg Central School District, currently serving as one of two Republicans on the Schenectady County Legislature along with James Buhrmaster. McGarry also takes class portraits for local students.
McGarry's involvement in politics goes back to his time as president of the student council at Draper High School in Rotterdam. In his current role in the minority in the County Legislature, he said he's used to going against the grain and voicing dissent, much like Republicans have to in the Democrat-dominated Assembly.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but emblematically, here’s the agenda: vote any way you want because there are two of you, and there’s 13 of us," McGarry said of the Democratic majority. "I mean, they don’t say that overtly, but that’s the general flavor of the way it goes on the county Legislature."
Shortly after being diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer, McGarry thought the news could not get worse.
Then a doctor told him he could be a quadriplegic before the end of the year.
That was in 2014.
“Not to get too spiritual on you, but I would use the word miraculous,” McGarry said of his life since hearing that prognosis.
When the outlook was grim, McGarry sought five different opinions on his diagnosis, leaving him with the choice between tried-and-true chemotherapy or a new drug in limited trials.
McGarry, 61, still has a photo on his cellphone of an MRI scan that shows his neck riddled with tumors.
At that point, McGarry chose to take a risk and became just the seventh patient to enroll in a trial for a new drug.
Still limber and energetic, McGarry travels to Houston every few months for treatment, but he said otherwise his health does not interfere with his daily life.
McGarry compared his situation with someone who has diabetes or heart disease, emphasizing that it does not define his life, and it is simply something he manages with the help of medical professionals.
"I know I might die with prostate cancer," McGarry said. "But not from it."
Career: Civil engineer
Education: Schalmont, SUNY Albany
Hobbies: Gardening, cooking, raising chickens
Party lines: Democrat, Working Families, Independence, Women’s Equality
Position: Schenectady County legislator
Education: St. Luke's, Draper High (Rotterdam), SUNY Geneseo
Hobbies: Bike riding, photography, coaching youth sports
Party lines: Republican, Conservative, Green