By Bob Cusack - 02/25/13 10:55 PM EST
When David Mercer opened his eyes, he saw family members around his hospital bed.
The longtime Democratic political strategist, who was under heavy medication, wondered to himself, “How did I get here? Did I fall off my bike?”
On July 12, 2012, Mercer walked into his neighborhood 7-Eleven on Capitol Hill. He had been going there for 15 years without encountering any problems. But this summer night would be different.
After attending a Washington Kastles tennis match, Mercer was multitasking in the 7-Eleven, picking up groceries and talking to a friend on one of his cellphones, placing his iPhone and other items down on the counter.
The phone was snatched by a man standing next to Mercer, who immediately asked for it back. Soon after the conversation got heated, Mercer retreated, seeking to “de-escalate” the situation.
With Mercer’s iPhone in his pocket, the man walked out of 7-Eleven and joined two others outside to wait for the political operative to exit the convenience store.
When Mercer did, it was “lights out,” he said.
He was struck in the face and knocked unconscious, falling back on his head. Mercer was rushed to Howard University Hospital and put into a medically induced coma.
Yebbie Watkins, chief of staff to Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who met Mercer at Duke University some 30 years ago, said the early reports weren’t good.
“We didn’t think David was going to make it,” Watkins said.
Mercer’s family and a dear and special friend, Tina Jeon, a director at Qorvis Communications, took charge, putting their work and lives on hold to maintain a 24/7 vigil by Mercer’s side, and they were indispensable in starting email lists to keep people in Washington and beyond updated.
Kimball Stroud, a fundraiser and event planner, said, “Everyone wanted to be on the email chain.”
Many, including Republicans, Democrats, people in the media and others, Mercer hadn’t heard from in decades.
But it was the bipartisan show of support that blew Mercer away.
“There was no barrier to people’s expressions of blessings, well wishes and prayers,” Mercer said in an interview last week. “Not only did it surprise me, but I marvel at it to this day.”
After five days, Mercer emerged from his coma. But his long road to recovery was just beginning, the doctors said.
He spent several more weeks at Howard University Hospital before being transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston for another two months. “The doctors and staff of both hospitals were incredible and have my deepest gratitude,” Mercer added.
“I owe great thanks to President Obama, Vice President Biden, the Clintons and Vice President Gore for their show of support and kind and thoughtful letters,” Mercer said.
He declined to provide all the details, but said Bill Clinton had called his mother, Sylvia, and Hillary Clinton had phoned his brother, Scott.
Mercer served in senior positions at the Democratic National Committee in the 1990s and founded his own consulting firm 16 years ago. He is regularly seen talking about politics and issues of the day on Fox News Channel.
As he recovered in Boston, Mercer said he faced a choice: Feed off the well-wishes of his friends and family, or dwell on the past and ask, “Why me?”
Minyon Moore, a former Clinton administration official who is like a sister to Mercer, said, “Every day he got stronger.”
“I was determined to come back 100 percent,” Mercer said, adding that “it was only possible with the prayers and incredible support from my mother, brother, sister-in-law, cousins, Tina Jeon, long-standing friends and colleagues.”
And he succeeded.
“He’s as sharp as ever,” said Soroush Shehabi, the publisher of Washington Life magazine.
Mercer got so strong, in fact, that he thought about going to the 2012 Democratic convention. After all, he had been to every one since 1980 except for the 1984 convention.
At one point, though, he was told he wasn’t going anywhere.
Mercer, who played three sports in high school, said, “I know it’s better to be on the field than to be on the sidelines. I had to adjust.”
To keep in the game, the California native, who grew up in New York, took notes on the presidential race as well as the three debates. Seeking normalcy, or as much normalcy as possible, was a daily goal.
Less than four months after his near-death experience, Mercer walked into his D.C. home in early November. A few days later, he voted for Obama.
He didn’t jump back into his usually hectic schedule, though. Instead, he eased in, enjoying a weekend walk and going to a friend’s birthday party.
“Imagine yourself out of play in your life for almost four months and then coming back. I had to find myself back to my own world,” Mercer said.
Throughout several interviews with The Hill about his recovery, the level-headed Mercer didn’t express any bitterness — even though a grand jury opted against bringing an indictment against the three men at the 7-Eleven.
“2013 is a new year and I refuse to let it take another day from me. I am blessed it doesn’t haunt me,” Mercer said.
The former Christian Science Monitor television producer is grateful for his doctors, who he says “were very surprised at the recovery and the speed of the recovery.”
The doctors were a great part of it, Mercer pointed out.
“They would tell you it was this treatment or that treatment,” Mercer said, “but there was more to it than that. There’s immense healing power that comes from our loved ones and friends that can never be underestimated.”
“He’s a more spiritual person now,” Stroud said.
“Miracles do happen,” Watkins said. “He is a living miracle.”
Karen Finney, a Democratic columnist for The Hill and a regular on the cable-news shows, said it was so touching that, during an intense election year, politicos from across the ideological spectrum came together to help Mercer and his family.
“We don’t think of Washington as a community, but in this situation, it was,” Finney said.
Many people interviewed for this article were struck by the randomness of the assault on Mercer.
“One week you can be sitting around the table at the White House,” Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said, “And the next you could be in a coma.”
“It was a reminder to all of us how precious life is,” Finney said.
Moore said, “We all got a wake-up call.”
In early February, Mercer returned to Fox News for an on-camera appearance.
“It was the most amazing thing,” Fox News anchor Shannon Bream said. “His face was glowing.”
“People were coming out of the control room to embrace my recovery,” Mercer said. “You would have thought I worked on campaigns with them for 20 years.”
Mercer knows his tale may not change the partisan nature of Washington, but he hopes it will have some impact.
“I have been given a renewed hope through this experience that we can get beyond partisanship that gets in the way of our reaching solutions,” he said.
But most of all, Mercer is relishing life.
“I’m here. I’m back,” he said with a smile.