Congressman Ralph Abraham, one of the two main Republicans vying to make Gov. John Bel Edwards a one-term governor, released a letter on his campaign website Tuesday criticizing the governor for what he said was using “children with disabilities as political pawns.”
But that letter, which addressed “Louisiana families with children with disabilities,” is drawing blowback from one key figure: Kodi Wilson, whose son, Braden, who has a severe neurological disorder, is mentioned in it.
“A few days ago, my son’s name and story was used unwittingly and unwillingly as a part of a political smear campaign,” Wilson, an advocate for the disability community who has testified at the State Capitol, wrote in a Facebook post yesterday. “Exploiting our family situation in this manner displays morals and ethics that as Braden’s mother, I cannot standby silently on the sidelines about. I am his voice. I am his protector.”
In the letter, Abraham claims Edwards has “repeatedly used children with disabilities as political pawns,” specifically referencing a February 2016 televised speech Edwards gave before one of the many special sessions called over the following years, as legislators repeatedly failed to agree on a solution on how to handle the state’s looming budget deficit.
In his speech, the governor spoke of two areas that could face the largest cuts — health care and education — which are often vulnerable in times of budget woes due to limits in how the state can spend its money that are written in the Louisiana Constitution.
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He mentioned Braden and Kodi as an example of a family that would be affected if there were cuts to the New Opportunities Waiver (NOW) program, which provides services for people with disabilities and helps pay for their care.
“Braden is 9 years old and suffers from Leigh's Disease,” Edwards said in the speech. “He has been bedridden since birth and requires around the clock care. There's nothing in the world Braden's mom, Kodi, wouldn't do for her family, and as a father of three I understand that. But the Wilsons and thousands of others like them are at risk of going bankrupt if the state program they rely on to help pay for Braden's care is severely cut. It's called the NOW Waiver program and they can't survive without it. It is one of many that will take a major hit if we do not solve our budget problems.”
“When I am Governor, you have my word that I will not use our most vulnerable children or their families as leverage for implementing my agenda,” Abraham’s letter reads.
In a YouTube video published today, Wilson held up a printed copy of the letter with a sad face drawn on it, read that portion and responded: “Isn’t that what this statement you released does?”
“Obviously, disability policy matters to me,” she said, panning the camera over to show her son, who is bedridden. “As you can see, we’re severely affected. He’s on six machines just to live every day. But here’s why disability policy matters to you, too: If they’re not already, your grandparents will one day be disabled. One day your parents will be disabled. And one day, you will be disabled, too, as we all age. That’s how it happens.”
In the video, Wilson also states that while she doesn’t usually make public endorsements, she encourages people to educate themselves on the issues and vote for Edwards. Edwards is also in her Facebook profile photo, and his wife, Donna, appears in her header photo.
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Abraham pledges his support of waiver programs like NOW "that allow for people to stay in their own homes rather than in institutions."
"In addition to saving lives, these programs allow families to continue to work and pay taxes, which benefits the entire State and its economy," the letter states. "I will make sure that these programs are adequately and that they are managed and administered effectively."
In her Facebook post, Wilson said the governor’s office reached out to her about the impact the cuts would have on her family and asked permission to use her family’s story in his address. She said nobody from Abraham’s campaign contacted her before the letter was published.
“I’m pretty easy to Google, and pretty easy to find within the disability community as an active advocate, if you truly want to understand the complicated needs of the medically complex community,” Wilson wrote. “Using our family story in this way, without permission or notice, feels to me like we have been exploited and victimized for personal gain.”