BOSTON — Former Republican governors Paul Cellucci and William Weld, once partners in running state government, have joined forces again — this time to raise money for research into ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Cellucci, 63, disclosed in January 2010 that he had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The disease attacks the brain and spine, and has no cure.
On Thursday, he appeared at a Boston fundraiser to help announce a $500,000 gift from the biopharmaceutical firm Biogen Idec to the UMass/ALS Champion Fund. Cellucci spearheaded creation of the fund, boosting researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester as they work to find a treatment for the disease.
Cellucci, who uses a wheelchair, said he still feels good overall.
"I'm weak in my arms and legs, but everything else is working fine," he said. "I'm fortunate to have a slow case. I hope it stays that way."
At his side was Weld, who hosted the fundraiser and jokingly introduced Cellucci as the "hind legs on the so-called Weld-Cellucci kangaroo ticket. The hind legs were stronger than the front legs."
Cellucci was Weld's lieutenant governor from 1991 until 1997, when he became acting governor upon Weld's resignation. Cellucci was elected governor in 1998 and served until 2000, when he resigned to become U.S. Ambassador to Canada.
The battle to find a cure for ALS is truly a nonpartisan cause, Cellucci said, bringing together all of the state's past and present chief executives. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, former Republican governors Mitt Romney and Jane Swift, and former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis all "unhesitatingly" signed on as honorary chairs of the fund.
Swift also attended the fundraiser, as did U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, former state Treasurer Joseph Malone and former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, among others.
"This is a big, big cause," said Cellucci, who said UMass researchers were already making significant progress against the disease named for Gehrig, the one-time New York Yankees star who succumbed to it.
"They are getting very close, not only for ALS but for many other degenerative diseases," Cellucci said.
Biogen Idec's contribution brings the size of the fund to $1.3 million. The goal is a $10 million endowment.
Dr. George Scandros, CEO of the Massachusetts-based company, said it has developed one promising treatment for the disease that is currently undergoing Phase III trials.
The UMass research is being led by Dr. Robert Brown, who said the medical center currently spends about $2 million to $3 million per year on ALS research, out of a total research budget of about $300 million.
"Not to do this is completely unacceptable," he said. "We have to find an answer and there is no doubt we will."
Cellucci said he was proud to have Weld at his side again. But he also couldn't resist sharing at least one story about "Big Red," a nickname for the tall red-head.
Referencing a mild controversy that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently stirred when he ordered flags lowered to half-staff after the death of singer Whitney Houston, a New Jersey native, Cellucci recalled that Weld once stunned a staff meeting at the Statehouse by suggesting that Massachusetts flags be lowered to half-staff when Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead died. Weld was well known as a "deadhead," the name for a devoted fan of the band.
"I literally pounded the table and said, 'You can't lower the flags for Jerry Garcia,'" Cellucci recalled.
"He listened to me, but I think he's still a little mad at me."