When a 38-year-old Park Avenue doctor named Mark McMahon decided to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton in a Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, he sent a letter to the retiring incumbent, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “My campaign motto is, ‘Say no to hatred,’” the letter read. “Please see my enclosed campaign brochure. I am requesting a meeting with you to discuss this matter.”
Dr. McMahon, an orthopedic surgeon, never did get that meeting. But that and a thousand other snubs haven’t stopped Dr. McMahon from pressing ahead with his efforts to ruin the well-laid plans of the entire state Democratic establishment, which enticed Mrs. Clinton to New York on the understanding that she would face no primary.
Very quietly, with no media attention, Dr. McMahon has spent the last few weeks in the arduous and often humbling task of collecting petition signatures in order to qualify for the primary ballot in September. Remarkably, he collected far more than the necessary 15,000. And the date for challenging the validity of those signatures–a New York ritual made famous during last spring’s Republican Presidential primary–has come and gone. So Mrs. Clinton will, after all, face a primary challenge.
As Dr. McMahon sees it, he has several advantages that his opponent lacks, at least according to her critics. For one thing, he says, his past is clean.
“I feel like there’s nothing to dig up,” said Dr. McMahon, who is tall and lanky and has the slightly geeky looks of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean. “There just isn’t a lot. I mean, I have three kids. So what do we do? We go home and rent Tarzan videos. That’s what I do for fun. That’s my fun. Even in college, I never did drugs. I never smoked a cigarette, even.” Dr. McMahon stopped and thought for a moment. “Even now, I drink a beer a month, maybe.”
Dr. McMahon also has a compelling personal narrative. While studying at Harvard Medical School, he almost died of a brain aneurysm. “Fortunately, they were right over there at the hospital, and they saved his life,” recalled Dr. Steven Mirabello, a classmate of Dr. McMahon.
And Dr. McMahon has even honed his rationale for running: As a surgeon, he would quickly stand out in the Senate, which is, by his estimation, far too populated by–you guessed it–lawyers.
“If I were elected to the Senate,” Dr. McMahon said, “I’d immediately become a leader in Medicare, Medicaid issues. These are the hottest topics in Washington and they’re decided by people who have never treated a patient. When I was mulling this over, Hillary arrived. It struck me that one of her prerequisites was that there would be no primary. It struck me as undemocratic that a candidate could be selected by half a dozen people. I said to myself, ‘Whatever happened to “We, the people”?’”
So he decided to give the people another choice: himself. Dr. McMahon has a few advisers now–including a media relations director and a treasurer–although he isn’t entirely sure what they do. His opponent recently acknowledged his existence at a press conference, although it’s unlikely that Mrs. Clinton will so much as mention Dr. McMahon’s name in the coming six weeks. He has picked up the support of Jim McManus, the legendary leader of the Hell’s Kitchen-based McManus Democratic Club. (The McManus endorsement may not have come as a complete surprise to Dr. McMahon: Mr. McManus’ dentist happens to be Dr. McMahon’s father.) And, on July 25, Dr. McMahon left for a campaign swing through upstate, where he plans to meet and greet in hospitals in Buffalo and Syracuse.
No TV Blitz
As he talked strategy with a couple of visitors in his Upper East Side office, Dr. McMahon inevitably raised the subject of campaign funds. His opponent has millions. He does not. “Today a hundred-dollar check came in, and a five-dollar check,” he said. “I’m not trying to raise money because I think that most of the money that’s collected is going to be spent on television advertising. Television advertising will not play a critical role in this election.”
Dr. McMahon asserted that he would be a far more formidable opponent for Mr. Lazio than Mrs. Clinton, because he has none of her negatives. “The Republicans would hate to go up against me,” he said.
Dr. McMahon has no chance, of course. But here’s the funny part: People are paying attention all the same. He has become an international story, mainly because people are desperate for news about a once-spectacular contest that lost some of its dramatic appeal since Rudolph Giuliani withdrew from the race. He has been profiled in The Times of London, the New York Daily News and several other publications.
Dr. McMahon, who lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and three children, is not entirely new to the world of fame and celebrity. As a hand and knee surgeon, he has occasionally been recruited by colleagues in the sports business. He once drew the blood of the entire Knicks team, as a favor to team doctor Norman Scott.
“The closest I ever came to operating on one of these guys was when Jayson Williams [of the New Jersey Nets] hurt his thumb,” Dr. McMahon said. “But then he went to another doctor.”
As a solo practitioner for seven years, he has built up a solid practice, which he enjoys primarily because his genre of medicine allows for frequent good news for patients.
“You pop the shoulder back in and they go away happy,” Dr. McMahon said.
Dr. McMahon has had a long interest in politics and government. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Jericho, N.Y., he started a political-science club in high school, which consisted of three students and a teacher discussing current events. While at Harvard Medical School, he won a fellowship to the London School of Economics by writing an essay on why doctors should be more involved in politics. Several years later, he almost had a shot at elected office when he was selected to run for a State Assembly seat. He withdrew soon after when local Democrats came up with a stronger candidate.
During medical school, Dr. McMahon tried his hand as a novelist, writing a vanity-published medical thriller titled Venice Beach . (On Amazon.com, Dr. McMahon called the book a “must-read for anyone thinking of attending medical school.”) The novel’s hero, a Harvard medical student named Ned, finds himself questioning the values that led him to Harvard in the first place. It was largely an effort to blow off steam during medical school. “Being in medicine is like being in war,” recalled William Kennedy Main, a colleague of Dr. McMahon. “He wrote it for a catharsis.”
Now Dr. McMahon is trying to handle the stress of the campaign trail. Not long ago, during a campaign stop in Albany, Dr. McMahon stood alone on a street corner, handing out pamphlets. He noticed that he was being watched by a burly man wearing an “Irish for Hillary” button.
As Dr. McMahon finished explaining his “peace through strength” ideas about Israel to a potential supporter, the man accosted him.
“What’s your real name?” the man demanded, jabbing a finger at him as his face grew redder. Then, referring to Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, the man added: “You’re part of that whole Crown Heights thing.”
The man proceeded to subject Dr. McMahon to a five-minute tirade. “He went on a whole rant about Israelis and what they’ve done to the Palestinians,” Dr. McMahon recalled. “He said Jonathan Pollard should rot in prison. I was just dumbfounded. I thought he was going to throttle me.”
Have fun, doctor.