The Internet saved Andy Stephenson's life. In May 2005, the voting-rights advocate's online community came together and raised $50,000 in 11 days to pay for surgery to treat Stephenson's pancreatic cancer. Now, the World Wide Web has spawned a bizarre campaign that accuses the nationally renowned activist of faking his illness.
JULY 8: Stephenson dies. MORE
Stephenson, 43, who could pass for talk-show host Conan O'Brien's brother, became active on voting-rights issues in 2004 when he learned about the security problems with electronic voting. A resident of North Seattle, Stephenson frequented the left- wing Web site Democratic Underground (www.democraticunderground.com). This virtual community led him to Bev Harris of Black Box Voting (www.blackboxvoting.org), a Renton-based, muckraking activist dedicated to exposing the flaws in our nation's voting infrastructure (see "Black Box Backlash," March 10, 2004).
Stephenson brought an in-your-face activism to what had been a sleepy topic—imagine a combination of ACT-UP and the League of Women Voters. He loved to go into elections officials' offices with his camcorder blazing, demanding information on obscure aspects of voting systems and software. In 2004, he ran for Washington Secretary of State as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Sam Reed, promising to clean up the election system, only to drop out before the filing deadline. That same year, he also began working with Harris on her national campaign to make voting more secure. In the process, he established his own national reputation as a voting-rights activist. Stephenson says eventually he and Harris had a falling out, and they are no longer on good terms.
None of these setbacks discouraged Stephenson from pursuing his goal of improving the nation's voting system. In January 2005, he went to Washington, D.C., as part of a grassroots lobbying effort on behalf of the Voting Integrity and Verification Act, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. While in D.C., Stephenson became ill with what he assumed was food poisoning. He flew back to Seattle and noticed his skin had turned yellow. He went to the Country Doctor Community Health Clinic on Capitol Hill and received treatment from Karen Johnson, a nurse practitioner, who became his primary care provider.
Months of illness and diagnoses followed. In April, Johnson says, the cause of his illness was determined. "He has pancreatic cancer," says Johnson. After researching the best options for his care, Stephenson chose to have his surgery performed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
There was one little problem: Stephenson didn't have health insurance or much money. He says the operation cost $50,000, and Hopkins demanded payment in full before the operation for an out-of-state, uninsured patient. (A Hopkins spokesperson would not elaborate on the bill, citing concern for patient confidentiality.)
Enter San Francisco's Elisabeth Ferrari. She has never met Stephenson in person, but had gotten to know him through postings on Democratic Underground. When she became aware of his need, she decided to raise as much money as she could through an Internet appeal. On Friday, April 28, she put out a fund-raising request on Democratic Underground. Other progressive outlets and activists including blogger/author William Rivers Pitt, Sirius Satellite radio's Thom Hartmann, Air America's Mike Malloy, and numerous Web sites picked up the fund-raising message. By Monday, May 9, she had raised all $50,000—most in small donations of $25 or less. "Democratic Underground has 60,000 subscribers," says Ferrari. "Andy has many, many friends there. He is a people magnet."
It was a remarkable achievement and a real testament to the power of Stephenson's activism. Johns Hopkins professor of surgery Dr. Charles Yeo says he performed a Whipple procedure—sometimes called the "Olympics" of surgery because of its duration and difficulty—for treatment of Stephenson's pancreatic cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Thursday, May 26. The surgeon removed a "golf-ball-sized tumor" from Stephenson's pancreas, according to Johnson. Stephenson came back to Seattle to recover and prepare for his oncology treatment. Says Johnson, "He needs chemo and radiation probably."
Then came the backlash. The origins of the rumors are murky, but the basic theme was Stephenson was a scam artist who didn't have cancer. The rumor spread like a computer virus across the Internet, and soon vitriolic postings were popping up all over the place.
The backlash falls into a couple of general categories. One group appears ideological in nature: Conservatives are attacking Stephenson because he's a progressive activist. "The right wing just went crazy," says Air America's Malloy. "This is one of the sickest things I've ever seen."
Another group appears to be people who are rightfully concerned about Internet scams.
Fred Grady, an accountant from Stanton, Neb., straddles both groups. He pays for a site called Scamdy.com that alleges Stephenson defrauded people. He learned of the controversy through a conservative Web site, Free Republic (www.freerepublic.com), that has an ongoing flame war with Democratic Underground. He is also very concerned that Stephenson's fund-raising was not done properly.
The fund-raising effort for Stephenson was the work of amateur activists, not professional charities. Spontaneous mutual aid has both good and bad characteristics. Stephenson's friends did not provide the kind of checks and balances that are associated with mainstream philanthropy. For instance, the money went directly to Stephenson—there was no board of trustees controlling a third-party account and carefully documenting expenditures and donations.
Meanwhile, Stephenson was readmitted to the hospital because of postsurgical complications on Wednesday, June 22, and remained there at press time on Tuesday, July 5. Stephenson says Medicaid is now covering him, so his medical bills are not a cause of concern.
I visited Stephenson in his hospital room at Virginia Mason Medical Center and listened to surgeons, a resident, and nurses discuss his cancer with him.
His spirits rise and fall on an hourly basis with the news of his condition. Through it all, he pushes his political issues, railing to me about decisions at the King County Elections Division.
His current diagnosis and treatment for the postoperative complications are unclear as the doctors struggle to figure out how best to help him. It is very clearly, however, a matter of life and death. "I am prepared for whatever the outcome is," Stephenson says. "I want to live—I don't want to die—but if not, I've left a legacy."