Elizabeth Emken lives on a leafy cul-de-sac in Danville with her husband of 26 years, their two daughters, their English springer spaniel, and their son, Alex.
"What's your birthday?" Alex asked. I gave him the date. He thought for an instant and put it into context that has meaning to him: " 'Mickey Mouse Club, Circus Day.' 'Up a Tree.' 'Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.' "
They're all Walt Disney productions, vintage 1955, the year I was born. Done with me, he asked two other visitors for the dates of their birth. "Old Yeller," he said of one. "Sign of Zorro," he said of the other.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month announced that 1 in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder, up from previous estimates of 1 in 110 two years earlier, and 1 in 150 in 2000.
Like the condition itself, the reasons for the rise are a mystery. Some of it may be attributable to better diagnosis and awareness. But much of the increase is real, and so is this: Alex Emken and tens of thousands like him will need a lifetime of care.
He is why Elizabeth Emken has embarked on a quixotic campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Many of Emken's positions come from the Republican playbook, and that places her at odds with other parents who similarly are enmeshed in the issue. On this point, they agree: "We're not addressing autism as the public health emergency it is."
At 19, Alex looks like a strapping high school kid, and in some ways acts like one. He bulled his way into the kitchen, grabbed snack food that includes a spray-on cheeselike substance, and plopped into a chair at the kitchen table to start his homework, which on this day was a page of percentages.
"He's good at math," his mom said.
Autism experts and Emken counts herself as one, having been "face deep" in the issue for 15 years believe causes of autism will turn out to be a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
Whatever those factors are, and however many there are, they ought to be identified and eliminated, Emken said. In addition to the impact on families, there is the issue of money, estimated at $3.2 million over the lifetime of a child with autism.
"It is incredibly important that we find the causes," Emken said.
Emken is one of 14 Republican Senate candidates on the June ballot, plus nine minor party and Democratic wannabes, all hoping to emerge from the top-two primary for the right to challenge, and lose to, Feinstein, who at 78 is in her 20th year in the Senate.
Two years ago, Republicans nominated millionaire Carly Fiorina to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer. Although she was Silicon Valley celebrity CEO, Fiorina was a spectacular failure as candidate and offered a cautionary tale to Republicans who might have thought about challenging Feinstein in 2012. Lacking big-name candidates, the California Republican Party endorsed Emken, not that she'll win.
"No name ID. No money. Bad equation," Feinstein's longtime strategist, Bill Carrick, said.
Emken, 49, takes many of the standard conservative stands. She opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, and she signed the no-tax pledge. But her work on behalf of autism has made her suspect in the eyes of some Republicans.
When Alex was diagnosed 15 years ago, she quit her job at IBM, became an activist, and ultimately got hired by the leading autism advocacy organization, Autism Speaks. She established Autism Speaks' governmental affairs office in Washington, registered as a lobbyist and worked on Capitol Hill to shape aspects of the Affordable Care Act that applies to autism.
Along the way, she concluded she could do a better job than her representative, Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, and ran for his seat in 2010. It didn't turn out well. She ran last among four Republicans in the primary.
Then, as now, her opponents note, she was a lobbyist in Washington who worked on Obamacare. That three-fer may not be the mark of the beast, but it is a red flag to Republicans.
"Nothing personal against Elizabeth Emken but she's a lobbyist!" one of her Republican rivals blogged. "Her background and recent work experience involves going to the federal government in Washington, D.C., and extracting taxpayer money for her special interest cause."
At campaign stops, Emken goes out of her way to denounce Obamacare and call for its repeal even though former Autism Speaks colleagues want it implemented.
If the U.S. Supreme Court were to strike down the Affordable Care Act, or if Republicans take control of Washington and repeal it, people with autism would be among the losers.
Peter H. Bell, executive vice president of Autism Speaks, noted that the act provides important benefits, not the least of which is that children can stay on their parents' health plans until they turn 26, and cannot be denied coverage because of their pre-existing condition.
Autism Speaks successfully lobbied to insert language in the final bill requiring that newly created state health care exchanges cover behavioral health treatment, a reference to a type of therapy called assisted behavioral analysis. Alex benefits from the therapy.
"That is a very important provision for us," Bell said. "If the act gets repealed, the provision is no longer there. Fewer families would be able to access those benefits."
In California, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year carried a bill requiring that private health insurance companies provide assisted behavioral analysis beginning in July. That measure assumes that in 2014, the feds will start providing subsidies for the treatment.
"Funding is at the core of our services and program needs for our children," said Rick Rollens, the former secretary of the Senate who lobbies on autism-related issues in Sacramento and became immersed in the issue after his son was diagnosed 20 years ago. "We'd be back to square one" if the Affordable Care Act unravels.
It's not at all clear that Emken can win the Republican primary. Candidate Orly Taitz, the birther who has challenged President Barack Obama's citizenship, led in one early poll. Voters wouldn't nominate her. Would they?
One evening last week, Emken attended a Tea Party Patriots' forum in El Dorado Hills. Two-thirds of the 200-plus folding chairs were empty, and only four of the 14 GOP Senate candidates showed up.
One candidate criticized Emken for having lobbied on Obamacare. Another candidate, Dan Hughes, elicited the most applause when he called for the abolition of the Commerce, Energy, Education, and Housing departments, plus the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Reserve.
Emken talked about the national debt, jobs, problems with the health care law, and Alex.