There has never been another election like it in the country. In 2009, a man from Englewood, New Jersey, ran for state assembly against the district’s two incumbents. Though he won only seven percent of the vote in last June’s Democratic primary, he considered that a victory in itself. And in the latest twist, one of his former opponents, Assem- blywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, has now hired him to serve onher staff. His name: Christopher C. Gagliardi, and, in a powerful twist – he was born with infantile autism.
Born in Westwood, New Jersey on December 18, 1980, Gagliardi is believed to be the only person with autism to ever have run for public office in the United States, according to the Autism Society of America. And other than Hillary Clinton’s going on to work for President Obama, there likely aren’t many other instances in politics where a candidate has hired an electoral opponent.
“When Chris was a baby, he didn’t do the things babies do,” said his mother, noting that Gagliardi was diagnosed with autism as an infant. “He didn’t crawl. He screamed when I cuddled him. And at first I didn’t know what it was. There was no Google to look things up and find the word “autistic.”
Monahan says her son’s political bug came naturally to him without much pushing from her. “From the earliest I can remember,” she said, “he loved the rallies, took the bus to Democratic headquarters in Hackensack, liked making the calls for candidates. He wanted to vote when he was 14.”
“It was hard for me to express how I felt,” said Gagliardi. “My first real sentence came at the age of 16, when I said, ‘Mom, I need a hug.’ That was the day Gagliardi had a particularly unpleasant encounter with school bullies. “I was always picked on by bullies,” he recalled. “I was called slow, retarded, freak, you name it. It got to be overwhelming sometimes.”
“When finally he told me, ‘Mommy, I need a hug,’ that day I held my child for the first time ever,” Monahan said. “I thought, he knows I am his mommy. At the time I had breast cancer, but it was okay. Chris knew I was his mommy.”
Once Gagliardi started talking and came into his own, “his classmates saw Chris evolve before their eyes,” Monahan said. He went from bullied student to being elected student council president at Ridgefield Memorial High School. He was the first student with mental challenges to reach that pinnacle. As student council president, he helped raise funds for families of September 11 victims, as well as for people with HIV/AIDS by teaming up with Broadway Cares/Equality Fights AIDS.
After high school, Gagliardi wanted to go to college but couldn’t. No local college had a transitional program for those with developmental challenges.
“So I decided, you know what, I am going to put college on hold for right now,” he said. He looked for a job in downtown Englewood. He received job rejection after rejection, except from the Starbucks on Palisades Avenue.
Nine years later, he still works there stacking cups, just a block away from Vainieri Huttle’s district office. Valerie Vainieri Huttle is a Democrat who serves in the New Jersey General As- sembly where she represents the 37th Legislative District.
“I’ve known Chris for years,” Vainieri Huttle said, “from the time I was a freeholder” (a county legislator) Vaineiri Huttle served as a Bergen County freeholder since 2001, before she was elected assemblywoman in 2006. “I would see Chris at events where he would be singing opera or reading poetry. He caught my eye because people with special needs have always been close to my heart. So after the election (last year) I thought, who better to be outreach coordinator to people with special needs?”
To read the full article on Chris and his many accomplishments get the latest issue of Our USA Magazine.