Taking a swing at political life

Lobbying: Not just any issue would bring businessman Wilson Krahnke to Capitol Hill. But Lou Gehrig's disease is another matter.

May 24, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Wilson Krahnke, 60, of Bethesda, a businessman all his life, trod down First Street in the nation's capital in dark suit and starched shirt. Under his arm he carried the day's Wall Street Journal.

The last time he visited the Hart Senate Office Building, he did so to inspect the accounting and financial systems there underpinning his company's food service contract. If political things were going on, he ignored them -- that was his wife's bailiwick.

Personally, though Krahnke always volunteered for church and civic groups, he found politics abominable. He never understood why anyone would go to all those boring meetings or delve into all that nitty gritty. In the 30 years his wife, Betty Ann Krahnke, has been serving the public in Montgomery County -- she's now in her third term on the county council -- he was happy to stay in the background.

All that changed when his wife was diagnosed last summer with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative muscle disease also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. She continues to represent her constituents -- although she's lost her voice -- with the help of a voice synthesizer. He is her voice in other arenas.

When the leader of an ALS support group asked for about 10 people to canvass Capitol Hill, Wilson Krahnke stepped up to bat.

Last week he found himself knocking on the door of Maryland's senior senator. Sen. Paul Sarbanes was rushing out to a Democratic party caucus, so Krahnke followed him to a Capitol reception room.

He explained that Betty Ann Krahnke was working and had sent him, "a poor replacement," to discuss a few things.

"This is our Ad-Av-Adav-Advocacy Day," he told Sarbanes. Then the unaccustomed lobbyist laughed. "I can't pronounce the word," he said.

Disability payments

Krahnke and the others asked Sarbanes to support a new bill that would allow ALS patients to receive Medicare disability payments within five months instead of after the usual 24-month wait. It's not fair to make them wait, group members said, since ALS patients sometimes live only two years after diagnosis.

And it's not as if they want to milk the system -- a nurse with the group told about the "ALS loan closet" of equipment she lets patients borrow as they progress through stages of their illness. Health insurance does not cover these things, which help the patients keep up their quality of life.

Sarbanes was sympathetic: "So often you need a personal experience" to drive home what must be done for people with the disease, he said, explaining that one of his own friends had contracted ALS and he had helped the friend find treatment at Johns Hopkins. Before long, he was reassuring Krahnke and friends about the best way to bend the ear of busy people like him: "You're doing it exactly right," he said.

When Sarbanes took off, Krahnke shrugged. "You don't know what to say," he said.

He listened as more experienced members of the Maryland team pressed their case, traipsing from House to Senate and back again, buttonholing five elected Maryland officials.

Krahnke made the opening remarks for the group when it got to Rep. Connie Morella's office: "This is Advocacy Day," he began. "For those who don't know, we are trying to press two pieces of legislation. "

If only the Congressional Budget Office would hurry up with a fiscal impact statement, one group member complained -- it's been hanging around a year and a half. A Morella aide reported that the CBO report is on a faster track. "Which means it's going nowhere," Krahnke chimed in, "that's what it means."

When the staff member offered to report back to Krahnke on how much longer the CBO estimate will take, he shrunk from the prospect -- "I am not a reliable conduit," he said.

He was discussing the lack of opportunity for patients such as his wife to participate in any drug trials -- the market is too small for private companies, and government research money has dried up -- when Morella arrived from the House after casting a vote.

Morella's support

For years before the diagnosis of her friend and fellow Republican, Betty Ann Krahnke, Morella was an ardent supporter of ALS research. Preaching to the converted paid off: She said she'd be happy to try to enlist Maryland representatives not already signed up as bill sponsors.

Morella was so surprised to see Wilson Krahnke that she hugged him. The last time she saw him, she recalled -- at a movie premiere to benefit ALS research -- he said he didn't know much about the disease and wasn't sure he wanted to learn! "I've never done this before," Krahnke admitted, "it's not my cup of tea."

Betty Ann Krahnke, whose preparedness at council meetings is legendary, got mad at her husband last week, he said, because he hasn't done all his reading on her disease. She did it for him when he had surgery a few years ago.

But he's a wing-it kind of guy.

And this day, he was getting it.

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