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Slaughter injury raises age issue Congresswoman doesn't see her broken leg or her 82 years entering into the race for a 14th term, but political pros and pundits say both could haunt the campaign

Beginning her race for a 14th term in Congress from a wheelchair doesn't seem all that daunting to Rep. Louise M. Slaughter.

"It doesn't bother me in the least," Slaughter, D-Fairport, told reporters Tuesday in Rochester, two weeks and a day after shattering her left thigh bone in a fall while crossing West 50th Street in Manhattan. "Everybody knows who I am and what I do."

And while that's certainly true in Rochester, Slaughter's appearance in a wheelchair can't help but highlight the issue that dares not speak its name in her tough battle for re-election against the popular Monroe County executive, Republican Maggie Brooks.

Slaughter is 82 and will be 83 before Election Day. She is the fifth-oldest member of the House and the oldest woman in Congress.

And while those who know Slaughter best say she is every bit as fit and forward-thinking as she has been throughout a career marked with significant accomplishments, political pros and pundits said the age issue is likely to haunt Slaughter until she is up and walking again -- and even beyond that.

"This [the broken leg] is not good news for her," said Curt Smith, a Republican radio host and longtime observer of the Rochester political scene. "It puts front and center an issue she would rather not discuss: her age. Maggie Brooks won't mention it; she'd be a fool to do so. But now she doesn't have to."

Characteristically, Slaughter, who has represented part of Buffalo in Congress for nearly a decade, confronted the health and age issues head-on at a news conference Tuesday at Strong Memorial Hospital.

A rumor -- which has circulated in Rochester, Buffalo and Washington -- that Slaughter is suffering from cancer is just not true, she said.

"My health is fine; it's good," she said. "I would not be running for office if I was about to die. I never start something I don't intend to finish."

Asked if her age was an issue, she said: "It is with some people. That's their choice."

Slaughter, who plans to be back at work in Washington by May 1, said she has no worries about the role that age might play in the campaign.

"I've never been concerned about that," she added. "Most people, when they see me, don't know anything about my age."

Indeed, many in Washington often marvel at how young Slaughter seems, both in appearance and in spirit.

"Every day, her persistence and perseverance set her apart," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, a close ally.

Slaughter's persistence paid dividends this spring in the final passage of the STOCK Act, legislation she had pushed for six years that will ban lawmakers and other top federal officials from making stock trades based on inside information.

Slaughter also has won long lone-wolf fights to ban discrimination based on a person's genetic makeup and to get the Defense Department to improve the quality of what previously had been shoddy body armor.

Similarly, "she's a step or two ahead" in the fight to ban the unnecessary use of antibiotics in farm animals, said Robert Lawrence, professor at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.

"She is very engaging," Lawrence said of the Kentucky-born congresswoman. "She sort of combines Northern efficiency with Southern charm."

Slaughter has turned her involvement in such cutting-edge battles into a campaign slogan: "Louise Slaughter: Taking on the Fights No One Else Will."

Because of the broken leg, Slaughter's age will likely be all the more obvious in the coming months, the source predicted.

Voters may wonder whether they want to vote for someone in their 80s, and they're right to ask that question, said Steven A. Sass, program director at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

"It's a reasonable issue to raise in the election," Sass said. "It's important to make an individual decision. There are certain people in their 80s who have lost quite a bit of acuity. But there are those who have lost little."

Brooks, Slaughter's election opponent, said that age won't be an issue in the campaign but that the current state of affairs in Washington will.

"Incumbents have to take ownership of the dysfunction," Brooks said, adding: "I think I better reflect the current-day values and priorities of the district."

In any case, the voters in the new Rochester-based 25th District, which doesn't include the Buffalo area, will have a real choice in this election: a veteran liberal Democrat with a solid record of accomplishment or a successful moderate Republican county executive.

Brooks already has raised more than $250,000 for her campaign. That's far less than the $535,000 that Slaughter has on hand, but it's a good start on a race that began just weeks ago.

And that's just the beginning. Both candidates are expected to raise huge sums for a race that is likely to draw national attention.

Not once in the race is anyone likely to question Slaughter's desire to return to Washington.

"I miss it so much because there is nothing I like to talk about more than federal issues," she said Tuesday. "I want to be in Washington. It's my job."

Slaughter fell when she was traveling with her family in New York earlier this month. She said she, her daughter and granddaughter were crossing West 50th Street when she tripped on part of the street that was under construction.

"I sat there and watched my left leg swell up and my left foot pointing over to the side," she said, adding she "scared my granddaughter to pieces."

She acknowledged that the injury was very painful but said she is making the best of it.

"And I have no underlying dreadful condition here that's going to pop up," she added.

Dr. Stephen L. Kates of the University of Rochester Medical Center, who has been treating the congresswoman since she underwent surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York just after the accident, said she is "recovering beautifully" and that she is making "excellent progress so far."

He said Slaughter suffered a "very severe" fracture of the left femur just above the knee and into the knee joint. He said that with continuing rehabilitation sessions of three to four hours a day, she could resume a full schedule soon.

"I expect a full recovery," he said.

So does Slaughter, who seemed at the news conference to be doing what she always does: enjoying the ride -- even if it's in a red wheelchair.

"I always did want a red convertible," she said. "This is as close as I'm going to get."

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