Saltwater Portrait

Tony Coelho: From the Beltway to Baltimore Avenue

Former congressman reflects on a life of trying to help
July 21, 2015

Rehoboth Beach has offered a relaxed and anonymous life in retirement for Tony Coelho.

He says he likes how the city offers him a chance to blend in and be part of a community. His apartment on Baltimore Avenue is spacious and inviting, and it’s hard to beat the third-floor view of the street below and the city water tower looming to the west.

“I love to go to bars and go to restaurants and walk around and just be an individual. Rehoboth is just such a wonderful city. It’s really peaceful,” Coelho said.

For Coelho, Rehoboth seems a million miles away from his days in Washington, D.C., where for five terms he served as Congressman Coelho, Democrat, from California’s 15th District.

Coelho has been coming to Rehoboth since his days as a staffer during his 14 years working under his predecessor as a congressman, Bernie Sisk. Coelho said he fell in love with the city right away and made sure to come back every year.

“I love this area. I’m Portugeuse. We love water. Rehoboth is my dream. I love the openness of Rehoboth. Generationally, we’ve adopted Rehoboth as our place to go,” he said.

After leaving Congress in 1989, Coelho continued coming to the Delaware beaches before moving to Rehoboth permanently 10 years ago. He lives with his partner, Bob Derher and is visited every summer by his two daughters and four grandchildren.

Rags to regs to Congress

The 73-year-old Coelho was born and raised on a dairy farm in the small town of Los Banos, Calif., halfway between San Jose and Fresno. He said much of his early life was spent milking cows.

“It developed a lot of character for me having to do that. You couldn’t get sick. There were no holidays. It built a certain work ethic for me,” Coelho said.

At 16, Coelho was involved in a pickup truck accident. Afterwards, he began experiencing seizures and blacking out. Coelho said his parents took him to doctors who diagnosed him with epilepsy, something they refused to accept. He said his parents were devoutly Catholic and they associated epilepsy with being possessed by the devil. Coelho said his parents believed God was punishing their family because of a major sin committed by someone in the family. Coelho said his parents even took him to three witch doctors.

Looking to get out of his small, rural town, Coelho went to college at Loyola University in Los Angeles, now Loyola Marymount, a small, Catholic college. At Loyola, he became student body president.

Coelho said he was hit very hard by President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

“I was very proud of the fact that a Catholic had been elected. He and his wife had changed the world, I thought. I decided then, to the shock of my girlfriend and my fraternity brothers, that I wanted to be a priest,” Coelho said.

He said Kennedy had inspired him to want to help people, something he thought he could do as a priest. However, Coelho was rejected from the seminary after a medical exam revealed he had epilepsy. His coming to terms with his condition caused a rift with his deeply devout parents, who thought no son of theirs would be what they considered a crazy person.

Coelho said when he was rejected from numerous job offers, he become depressed and started drinking, with L.A.’s Griffith Park being a popular spot.

“I thought there were mountains. There were no mountains – there were hills – but everything looks big when you’re drunk. I’d get drunk there every day. By 2 p.m. I was wasted. I was feeling sorry for myself because everything I had ever loved in my life had turned against me,” he said. “I’d always been so successful and then, bang. That was hard to take.”

Coelho pulled himself up, quit getting drunk and, at the recommendation of comedian Bob Hope, who Coelho had worked for briefly, soon began his career in politics. Hope noted Coelho’s need to help people and advised him that politics was the way to do it.

“He’s the one that guided me here,” Coelho said of Hope.

He applied to work for Sisk, who was his hometown congressman and eventually rose to become chief of staff, succeeding his boss when Sisk retired. After his freshman year in Congress, Coelho was appointed to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and in 1987, he became the House majority whip. His counterpart on the Republican side was future Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Sponsoring landmark legislation

It was his epilepsy that informed Coelho’s signature measure in Congress, the Americans With Disabilities Act. Coelho was the primary sponsor of  legislation in the House of Representatives that prohibited discrimination based on disabilities.

“It was based on the discrimination I faced. What we are is able people who happen to have a disability. What we want is a job. We want to work. It’s hard because if you have a disability, it’s hard to get a job,” Coelho said.

During the debate over the ADA, Coelho got a first-hand look at the now-legendary relationship between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

“Tip loved poor folks and the disabled and was determined that they not be hurt. Reagan was perceived not to, but I don’t agree with that. Tip really felt strongly that these folks should be protected. And they fought over that all the time. It was just different philosophies,” Coelho said.

While he disagreed and fought with Reagan politically, Coelho said, he liked and respected him. He recalled being asked by the White House to attend a luncheon when Reagan was speaking. During his speech, Reagan talked about playing baseball player Grover Cleveland Alexander as a drunk in the film “The Winning Team,” when in fact Alexander’s family had asked Reagan to conceal that Alexander had epileptic seizures. Coelho said Reagan regretted not insisting to play Alexander truthfully.

“The fact that Reagan would say that and they invited me there, it impacted me. I still beat him up because of my philosophy, but as a person, I grew to like him,” Coelho said.

He said  52 different countries have their own version of the ADA, something Coelho is proud of. Coelho was also proud to see the effects of the ADA become such a part of everyday life, such as curb cuts on street corners and volume controls on telephones.

“The curb cut is something we just assume is always there,” he said. “Volume controls on telephones, that’s really for the hearing impaired, but what’s happened is everybody uses it. That’s become forgotten that it’s for people with disabilities. I’m very proud of what we have been able to accomplish.”

Although he had left Congress by the time the ADA became law in 1990, Coelho still works on its behalf. He recently pushed for an amendment to the ADA that clarified hiring practices for federal contractors hiring people with disabilities and was signed as an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2014.

Coelho said he next wanted to see an amendment to the act improving access to transportation for people with disabilities.

“Being accessible so people with disabilities can get to a job or get to a movie or get to a restaurant or get to church. These are things that everyone else in society takes for granted. And those of us in the disability community look for ways to make it happen,” Coelho said.

He has been in high demand as a speaker on the act’s 25th anniversary; Coelho provided the keynote address at a July 18 celebration of the act at Legislative Hall in Dover.

“ADA started getting people to understand that you have to give people with disabilities the opportunity to fail. I always say that because if you do not give me the opportunity to fail you won’t give me the right to succeed. Give me a chance to do what I can do,” he said.

After leaving Congress in 1989, Coelho went to Wall Street, where he worked for the firm of Wertheim Schroeder for five years before being appointed by President Bill Clinton to chair the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, which he led from 1994 to 2001.

He was also the chairman of then-Vice President Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000. Coelho said it was an interesting time as he was in frequent contact with Clinton, who seethed that Gore did not use him on the campaign trail. Coelho had to leave the campaign shortly after Gore secured the Democratic nomination due to a recurrence of seizures that were later revealed to be a brain tumor.

Staying active in Rehoboth

Coelho said he has always been someone who fights for what he believes in and that now extends to his adopted hometown. Coelho has been in vocal opposition to the city government’s recent actions concerning swimming pools, primarily because he said his epilepsy prevents him from going into the ocean by himself. But with a pool, he said can go in on his own and not worry that he’ll die if he has a seizure.

“This isn’t a retirement community. If you want a retirement community, go to a retirement community. This is a beach town. This is the beauty of it. Some people resent that. People should be proud of that and shouldn’t be negative about new people coming in. That’s what keeps the town alive,” Coelho said.

He said he's disturbed that the town leadership has tried to push people away instead of bringing them together. While he would not run for office himself, Coelho said he did not want to see people being prevented from having fun in the summer.

“It’s a beautiful town, it’s a great community. It should be welcoming, especially to kids,” Coelho said.


  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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