Dr. Jeffrey A. Ascherman campaigns on Lexington Avenue and 83rd Street. The Republican physician is running for a state Assembly seat on the Upper East Side and would become the only doctor in the Legislature if he triumphs. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ascherman for Assembly Campaign
There are four medical doctors in the U.S. Senate and 12 in the House. At least two states are run by physician-governors. There is one on the City Council. And more than 75 serve in statehouses across America.
Albany, by contrast, is Nowheresville. Out of 213 elected members in the state Legislature — 63 in the Senate and 150 in the Assembly — there is not a single medical practitioner. That’s been the case for decades.
Now, Dr. Jeffrey A. Ascherman, a top plastic surgeon and professor of surgery who has been listed in New York Magazine’s “Best Doctors” issue for nine of the past 10 years, is seeking to change that dynamic.
He’s mounting a Republican challenge for a state Assembly seat in a heavily Democratic district that includes the Upper East Side, Sutton Place, Turtle Bay, Kips Bay and Midtown East, including Trump Tower.
Of the scores of candidates for elective office who marched, noshed and schmoozed at the Columbus Day Parade on Oct. 8 and the German-American Steuben Parade on Sept. 15, only Ascherman could truly say, “I’m not a professional politician, I’m a practicing physician!”
For the past 14 years, he’s served as site chief of the division of plastic surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia, and he holds an endowed chair as the Thomas S. Zimmer Professor of Reconstructive Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, where he’s been an attending physician since 1995. He’s also published 90-plus scientific articles.
The 56-year-old Ascherman is basically a lifer at Columbia. “I’ve been here for 34 years,” he said. “I started medical school in 1984, and outside of a study year in Paris, I never left.”
So why is he vying to unseat Assembly Member Dan Quart — a popular Democratic incumbent who was first elected in 2011, thrice cruised to reelection and trounced his last GOP opponent, Rebecca Harary, by a 36,000-to-21,000 vote margin — in the Nov. 6 general election?
“I’m not running as a partisan,” he explained. “I’d like to improve the lives of all my patients and all New Yorkers — no matter what party they’re in.
“Healthcare and healthcare legislation affects every single one of us,” he added. “That makes it all the more incredible that the Legislature has no M.D.s with firsthand experience of working in the medical field.”
Indeed, the lack of a medical voice among state lawgivers motivated his bid for office: If elected, he said, he would help advance bills aimed at protecting patient rights — like a pending measure to prevent hospitals from pushing out women with breast cancer too quickly after a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery.
“I have performed thousands of breast reconstructions over the years,” Ascherman said. “And I can tell you, this is not an outpatient procedure.”
Other bills he supports would bar sudden increases in drug prices in the midst of a patient’s cycle of treatment and care, and “minimize pre-authorization hassles” with insurance companies before medical tests, needed surgeries and even simple visits to a doctor can proceed.
“There are too many times we’ve had to delay surgery for patients with breast cancer because the insurance company hasn’t approved it yet — and the patient is worried that the cancer is going to spread, and I’m worried that the cancer is going to spread,” Ascherman said.
The state legislature is a part-time job, so if he wins, he won’t have to put down his scalpel. He’d also be able to continue his long practice of providing community service beyond the hospital’s walls, in China for instance.
Ascherman has conducted several humanitarian surgical missions in Nanjing and Harbin, performing five surgeries a day over a week in orphanages and hospitals and operating on cleft lips, cleft palates, hand defects and burns to help make scores of Chinese children more adoptable.
“These kids were becoming social outcasts, they couldn’t go to school, people were making fun of them, they were never being adopted — and yet, these abnormalities could so easily be corrected,” he said.
How will this translate in the political arena? Unclear. But by one key yardstick, the doctor is set to defy conventional wisdom: Typically, an underdog — and there are 2.6 registered Democrats to every Republican in the 73rd Assembly District — goes on the attack.
Ascherman says he won’t do that. “Political people have advised me to do negative mailings. They say you have to attack your opponent,” he said. “But I’ve instructed my staff not to do so. I haven’t said a single negative thing about him, and I don’t intend to.”
In an interview, Quart repaid the favor, saying any disagreements would be policy-based, not personal. “I have tremendous respect for anyone who runs for public office, so I never would and never will attack Mr. Ascherman,” he said.
Instead, Quart said, he’s running on a record that includes helping to lock up an extra $1 billion in capital funding to continue building the Second Avenue Subway; securing monies for library construction on the East Side; funding air-quality monitoring and improvements citywide; and battling for comprehensive property tax reform.
Meanwhile, in the old Silk Stock District — where Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump in 2016 by a 47,749-to-10,859 vote margin — the doctor’s patients have informally organized #DemocratsForDr.Ascherman, a group whose support he’ll need if he any chance of beating the odds.
“I’m a hard-core Democrat,” said Martha Brumfield, a patient at high risk of breast cancer whom Ascherman treated, along with her two sisters. “I never supported a Republican in my life. But I’m making an exception for my doctor.”