07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
GRACEFULLY SEATED IN HER wheelchair in the living room of her home in California's Napa Valley, Michela Alioto doesn't like to talk about the nightmarish fall 15 years ago that left her paralyzed from the waist down. "I never think about my accident," she says. But, she concedes, "It made me a tenacious person."
That tenacity was on display on March 26, when Alioto pulled off a stunning upset victory in the Democratic primary for California's First Congressional District, which covers some 1,500 square miles from the San Francisco Bay Area north to the Oregon border. Now, Alioto, 28, is battling to unseat Republican Rep. Frank Riggs, 45, a former sheriff's deputy—and thus become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. "I was just raised to believe that you need to do something to put back into your community," Alioto says. "Holding elected office is a good way to do that."
Call it a family tradition. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph L. Alioto, 80, was San Francisco's Democratic mayor from 1968 to 1976; her father, attorney Joseph M. Alioto, 52, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1992; her maternal grandfather, Michael Driscoll, 79, served in the 1970s on the city's Board of Supervisors, where her aunt Angela Alioto, 45, is a current member.
Michela (pronounced mee-KAY-la) Alioto grew up in San Francisco's affluent Pacific Heights, the oldest of four children born to Joseph and his wife, Michele, now a fund-raiser for spinal-cord and brain-injury research. "Politics was always part of our life," says Michela, who was class president several years running at her Catholic elementary school. But her comfortable childhood was shattered on April 5, 1981, a blustery day at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Valley ski resort. Alioto, then 13, was thrown from a defective chair-lift. The 50-foot fall compressed two vertebrae in her back, leaving her paralyzed. (After suing the resort and lift manufacturer, she received a reported multimillion-dollar cash settlement.)
What might have quashed all drive in someone else she accepted with stoic determination. "After her accident we were all grieving," recalls Driscoll. "She was the one we could turn to to get relief." She waged a winning race for student-body president from the hospital, where she spent three months. And she went on to be an activist on behalf of the disabled. After earning a B.A. from UCLA in 1992, she acted as an adviser on disability issues to President Clinton's presidential campaign, then worked for 2½ years in Washington preparing daily briefings for Vice President Al Gore. But she yearned for more: "I needed to be in a position where I felt I was making a difference," she says.
Last fall she returned to California, where she moved with her sister (and now campaign treasurer) Angelina, 26, into a St. Helena house surrounded by vineyards—and launched her campaign. "I don't think anyone really gave her a chance when this thing started," says San Francisco Chronicle political columnist Andrew Ross. But Alioto, who opposes cuts in student loans, Medicare and other social programs, soundly defeated four other primary candidates, taking 41 percent of the vote. Still, Riggs, her opponent, scoffs at her chances. "I don't believe First District voters will accept liberal left-wing San Francisco politics, which is what the Alioto family personifies," he says. In fact the odds seem to be in her favor: The heavily Democratic district has voted out the incumbent three elections in a row. (Riggs won in 1990 and '94 but lost to a Democrat in 1992.)
On the stump since January, Alioto, who is single, says that right now "the campaign is the only relationship I have." In the family, of course, there is general agreement on who will win. "She's very spirited," says Driscoll. "When she makes up her mind to do something, she does it."
GABRIELLE SAVERI in St. Helena