Texas Senator Ted Cruz is the latest presidential candidate to use an appearance in New Hampshire to share painful memories of tragic family drug addiction problems, and for good reason.
New Hampshire, a largely rural state with an outsized influence over the presidential campaign, has seen deaths from heroin and a potent painkiller called fentanyl skyrocket recently as drug overdoses sweep the country. In 2014 alone, 326 residents died from an overdose of heroin or other opioids, according to a new analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported by The New York Times.
During an appearance in the town of Freedom, the conservative Texan who is posing a major challenge to Donald Trump, said his half-sister, Miriam, died of an overdose of pills several years back and recalled how her son found her dead in bed.
“She spent her entire life struggling with both drug and alcohol addiction,” Cruz said. “She spent years going in and out of prison. She was a beautiful, delightful person who made a series of wrong choices over and over again.” Cruz also revealed that his grandfather and uncle both died of alcoholism.
Although drug addiction was once largely confined to minority populations, heroin and other opiates have taken hold in suburban and rural areas with large white populations – including the political battleground states of New Hampshire and Iowa. Deaths from drug overdoses reached a peak of 47,055 in 2014, increasing substantially in nearly every county across the United States, according to The Times.
“Substance abuse is a terrible scourge,” Cruz told a gathering at a country store. Cruz echoed the call of many for revising the criminal justice system and sentencing guidelines, so that people charged with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses are steered into “drug courts” or put in treatment for their additions, instead of facing stiff prison sentences. “Put them in treatment and help them overcome their addiction, Cruz said.
Cruz was tapping into a groundswell of concern in a state where residents view the drug abuse epidemic as the number one campaign issue, ahead of jobs and the economy and health care, according to a University of New Hampshire Granite State poll last October. Eighty-eight percent of residents said that heroin use was a “very serious problem,” and 48 percent of all adults and 60 percent of people under the age of 35 said they know someone who has abused heroin in the past five years.
“Last year and this year there will be more deaths from opioid overdoses than from automobile accidents,” Andrew E. Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said in an interview Wednesday. “The big difference is … the political leaders in the state are talking about it more as a public health crisis rather than something that happens to criminals or people who are drug addicts.”
Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton released a plan for a $10 billion initiative to combat the escalating drug epidemic affecting 23 million Americans with serious addictions. Republican New Jersey Chris Christie has frequently recounted a poignant story about a former law school friend who died from an addiction to pain killers and alcohol. And former CEO Carly Fiorina, another GOP presidential candidate, has spoken emotionally about losing a stepdaughter to addiction.
Now Cruz has joined the discussion. By sharing his sister’s tragic story, he may have also helped soften his image as a “nasty,” sharp-elbowed Texas politician, highly unpopular with his Republican colleagues in the Senate and on the presidential campaign trail.