September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

IT IS NEARLY 8 A.M., AND THE LONG Island Rail Road station in Mineola, N.Y., is packed with commuters as Carolyn McCarthy arrives. Wearing a gray suit and worn, black loafers, she starts shaking hands and thanking well-wishers for supporting her bid for Congress. “I hope you’ll think about me in November,” she calls out to a man stepping onto a Manhattan-bound train. “Not only will I think about you,” he hollers, “I’ll vote for you.”

The significance of her presence here is not lost on the harried LIRR riders. Less than three years ago—just one stop down the line in Garden City—a Jamaican immigrant named Colin Ferguson pulled out a 9-mm handgun and began methodically shooting passengers crowded onto an evening train out of Manhattan. Reloading twice before being wrestled to the ground, Ferguson killed McCarthy’s husband, Dennis, along with five others, and critically injured her son Kevin, who was among 19 wounded. The massacre transformed McCarthy, 52, a nurse who used to describe herself as “the quietest person in the world.” She became an outspoken advocate for stricter gun control laws and delivered a poignant, prime-time address last week to delegates at the Democratic National Convention. “I’m here as a woman with common sense and determination,” she said. “And I am going to make a difference.”

In 1994, after McCarthy and the families of other LIRR victims traveled to Washington to lobby their representatives, Congress banned assault weapons, including the rapid-fire magazine clip that Ferguson (now serving a 200-year jail term) had used. Yet the victory was short-lived. On March 22, House Republicans—including Dan Frisa, her representative—voted to repeal the bill. At a press conference on the steps of the Capitol, McCarthy boiled over. “I’m so mad,” she said, “I could run against Dan Frisa.”

She didn’t mean it, she says, but others believed her. “Everyone said, ‘You should do it,’ ” she remembers. “It just snowballed.” After the local Republican party refused to let her challenge Frisa, McCarthy, a lifelong member, announced her candidacy on May 28 as a Democrat. Some—notably Frisa—dismiss her as a single-issue candidate, limited to discussions of Uzis and AK-47s. “Have you heard her speak about anything else?” he asks.

In this, she may well be part of a trend: Crime victims have begun using such incidents to launch political careers. This year, McCarthy is joined by Vermont’s Susan Sweetser, a rape victim now running for Congress as a Republican, in part on an anticrime platform. In Washington, Jeralita Costa, whose sister was sexually assaulted, is campaigning as a victims’ advocate for a second term in the state house. In Oklahoma state senator Brooks Douglass (PEOPLE, Aug. 26) recently witnessed the execution of his parents’ murderer—courtesy of a law he helped fashion.

McCarthy concedes her campaign is driven by gun control but doesn’t see that as a handicap. “At least I have an issue!” she says. Before the shootings, she didn’t even have that. As a practical nurse, her only public cause involved cleaning litter off local beaches once a year. One of four children of Thomas Cook, a boilermaker, and his homemaker wife, Irene, she lives in the same two-story brick house where she grew up. But her suburban anonymity ended on Dec. 7,1993, when her husband of 26 years and her son—sitting together on the evening commute from their jobs at Prudential Securities—had the misfortune to be sitting in the same car as Ferguson.

Dennis, a 52-year-old assistant manager, was shot in the head and died on the train. Kevin, a computer analyst, was also shot in the head and was unable to talk or walk. After a grueling regimen of physical therapy, Kevin, now 29, astounded his doctors with his recovery. He speaks clearly, and even though he still has little function in his left arm and leg, he is able to walk by himself. “He’s basically back,” says McCarthy. “His attitude is excellent.”

At their home each morning, she fixes his tie and buttons his shirt before he catches the train to his job, which Prudential held open until his return a year ago. On his first day back at work, says his mother, “I was a nervous wreck.” Still too fearful to ride the train herself, she drove to the station to await his return, then hid in the car to keep from embarrassing him. “He saw me right away,” she laughs. “The other commuters were giving me a thumbs-up sign, like, ‘Kid’s doing great.’ ” If she’s elected, Kevin will need a helper for his buttons, but he won’t mind. “I’d rather she get her own vote rather than trying to change someone else’s mind,” he says.

Kevin’s life is returning to normal, but McCarthy’s has become increasingly hectic. “She’s going from zero to 60 in 3.4 seconds,” says Jeffrey Plaut, a consultant who helped get her campaign started. Bit by bit, McCarthy is taking charge—of her managers as well as her campaign. “I tell them, ‘Fellas, I know you can get dressed and out fast, but I need an hour.’ ”

If elected, she thinks she could take charge of her district as well. Going to Congress, she says, “would be like walking into any new job.” If she doesn’t understand an issue, she’ll figure it out on her own—as she has had to do so often since the shootings. “What did I know about guns three years ago?” McCarthy asks. “I learned. I had to.”

CURTIS RIST

MARIA EFTIMIADES in Mineola

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