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For One Delegate And Her Partner, Accessibility Has Hindered DNC Experience

Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont delegate Maria Rinaldi and her partner Mike Cseles outside the RV Csele modified to allow them to travel and attend to Rinaldi's needs. Arrangements with the DNC for convention accessibility have proved challenging.

Attending the Democratic National Convention is a brutal slog, filled with meetings, speeches, travel and long nights at the convention itself. One Vermont delegate’s hectic week in Philadelphia has been especially trying, but Maria Rinaldi and her partner, Mike Csele, are accustomed to finding creative solutions to challenges.

There’s a modest white motor home parked in the rear lot of a chain hotel about three miles away from the Philadelphia airport. The vehicle has a fascinating back story, but more on that later.

It belongs to one of the Vermont delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The 2016 Democratic primary was Maria Rinaldi’s first extended trip into the political universe. She says she was moved by Sanders’ message of economic equality.

“And you know that he really feels it and means it. I mean, it’s a heart and soul connection,” Rinaldi says. Rinaldi has spent countless hours over the last year canvassing, phone banking and fundraising to aid his cause.

“I wanted to help him get his message out there because I knew a lot of people didn’t know who he was,” she says. “He was just a senator from a small state, and that was his biggest disadvantage with Hillary.”

So Rinaldi, a 37-year-old Jericho resident, was honored and excited when she won her bid in May to represent Vermont at the DNC. She knew, however, that logistics would be critical.

“I said I only need two things: I said, I need to be able to park my RV at whatever convention centers we need. And I just need credentials for Michael to be able to help me with my needs,” Rinaldi says.

"I said, I need to be able to park my RV at whatever convention centers we need. And I just need credentials for Michael to be able to help me with my needs." — Maria Rinaldi, Jericho resident and delegate

The RV, because it’s retrofitted with the lift and other machinery she needs to travel in her motorized wheelchair. And Csele, because he’s her caregiver and mechanic.

“Oh yeah, I welded it up and it’s all made of common materials, so I can patch it up in a hurry," Csele says, demonstrating a homemade wheelchair lift. "You don’t have to buy anything special."

Csele takes rightful pride in the lift he installed on the used motor home he purchased in 2008. “With most medical equipment you have to go their shop and buy special things. With this, it’s all off-the-shelf items," he says.

Csele purchased the RV shortly after falling in love with Maria Rinaldi, which helps explain his devotion to its elaborate customization.

A separate lift-and-track system needed to get Rinaldi out of her wheelchair for care? No problem for Csele, a machinist who figured out that parts from a salvaged car would do the job just fine.

Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
The couple's vehicle in the parking lot of the Vermont delegation's hotel. After frustrating phone calls Monday, they were able to bring the RV to the convention center. Upon arriving, Rinaldi learned she would not be seated with her fellow delegates, but instead in the ADA section.

“You can see it’s simple, off of a four-wheel drive Jeep. I just grabbed the winch. Nice and simple stuff. The bed’s on rollers so it goes each direction, right and left,” Csele says. “They wanted $10,000 for just that lift. I said, you guys have to be kidding. It’s just some carbon-steel piping and simple parts. If you had to pay to have everything done, you couldn’t afford to be disabled. That’s really what it comes down to.”

They’ve traveled the country frequently in the vehicle since their commitment ceremony in 2009 — they decided not to get married only to avoid jeopardizing Rinaldi’s Medicaid benefits.

“This is it. It’s not the Taj Mahal, but it works for us,” Csele says. “We can do her care anywhere, pull over to the side of the road.”

"It's not the Taj Mahal, but it works for us. We can do her care anywhere, pull over to the side of the road." — Mike Csele, Rinaldi's partner

The doting couple has the routine down pat. And Rinaldi, a Winooski native and St. Michaels College graduate who now works as a web-support specialist at her alma mater, figured the trip to DNC would be entirely manageable.

That wasn’t the case.

DNC officials months ago told her she wouldn’t be able to bring her RV to the convention center. They assured her she’d have facilities accommodated to meet her need instead.

When she arrived Monday, she was shocked to find they’d failed to deliver.

Hours of stress-inducing phone calls yielded arrangements Monday that would allow them to drive their RV to the convention center. When Rinaldi finally made it to the convention floor, however, she was met with another disappointment.

“The other thing that bothered me was not being able to sit with my delegation,” Rinaldi says.

Denied accessibility to the section assigned her state, Rinaldi was relegated to a section far away from her fellow Vermonters.

“She was put up, in like a fenced in area. She was the only Bernie delegate [in the ADA section],” says Vermont Democratic Party Chairwoman Dottie Deans. “It was just atrocious. She was disconnected to all of us.”

"She was put up, in like a fenced in area. She was the only Bernie delegate [in the ADA section], it was just atrocious. She was disconnected to all of us." — Dottie Deans, Vermont Democratic Party chairwoman

Rinaldi says the tribulations with accessibility this week have added some emotional sting to watching her candidate formally concede defeat to Hillary Clinton.

Rinaldi says she cannot support the Democratic nominee, unless Clinton makes some drastic policy changes. As for her involvement in politics, Rinaldi says she’s unsure what might be next.

“I don’t know if I have the stamina,” she says. “It really takes a lot out of me emotionally.”

Csele hopes she stays in the game.

“Because I think she has insights other people don’t have. She sees things other people don’t have,” Csele says. “She’s got wonderful insights and thoughts on all of it, so I wish people would listen to her.”

Rinaldi says she’s ready to navigate whatever’s next, in the wheelchair she’s done it in her whole life. She just hopes not all the stops are challenging as the one at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

“They should be willing to work with you and just be open and kind," Rinaldi says. "We’re trying to be flexible. And we just expect that same level of respect back.”

VPR's coverage of the presidential conventions is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.

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