HOOKSETT, New Hampshire — Jeb Bush spoke intimately about his daughter's recovery, Carly Fiorina recalled begging a judge to not send her daughter back to jail, John Kasich appeared to choke up, and Chris Christie begged Americans to have more candid conversations about drug addiction. All those emotional reactions came Tuesday here at a forum on addiction.
Drug addiction has unexpectedly catapulted to the top of candidates' stump speeches this year, thanks in part to an epidemic of opiate addiction in New Hampshire that has affected a friend, family member, or acquaintance of nearly one in two Granite Staters, according to a WMUR poll. That survey from October found that voters in this key state picked it as the single most important public policy issue.
Virtually every candidate of both parties speaks about the issue at many stops in the first-in-the-nation primary state, but Tuesday's forum brought together five Republican presidential candidates and offered them a place to speak personally about addiction in front of many of the state's top addiction advocates, experts and law enforcement officials. It served as a forum about a critical issue, and a forum where the candidates were free to get more emotional than they typically do at other campaign stops.
"I felt like they were all authentic," said Marcia Graber, whose transgender son CJ passed away from a heroin overdose in 2009. "I was glad that they were able to share their personal stories. I felt as though they were sincere in their hope to have an impact and have an effect in the work of addiction."
She added, "I was grateful to learn that they had some awareness and they had some compassion." With her son, "the hope was that he would go to college as his true authentic self and it didn't quite work and he fell into drugs."
In one way or another, the issue affects most people in New Hampshire. "The biggest thing for me was when I attended a funeral this summer for a parent of a 4-year-old that I knew and sat with him at his dad's funeral," said Amy Michaels of Somersworth. "And I was like, okay, enough."
Critics are quick to denounce the outsize influence this small state has in choosing the next president of the United States. But in 2016, that influence has led candidates to take seriously an issue that was previously getting little attention in Washington and that might otherwise have been comparatively ignored.
Bush, whose daughter publicly struggled with addiction, acknowledged that he never expected to be talking about addiction here. "It was my first official trip [here] where it hit me like a brick wall. At the hotel we usually stay in, two people had loved ones that died of an overdose in the last six months," he said. "Now, so you don't feel like you're alone in New Hampshire, this is a national problem now. It may have risen dramatically in New Hampshire first, but it is a national problem."
On Nalaxone, the drug which can reverse opiate addiction, Bush noted, "I wouldn't have known anything about this had I not been a candidate for president and coming here."
For Christie, the addiction issue helped propel him from bottom-of-the-field status to the top tier here. A lengthy video clip of him speaking emotionally about his good friend's addiction went viral in October, showcasing the New Jersey governor's compelling political talent and earning him plaudits even from liberals for his call to treat addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing.
On Tuesday, Christie distilled the message, saying the best way to combat addiction is to bring it into the open and talk about it. "You don't go to a dinner party and say, you know what, my daughter is addicted to heroin, what's new with you? But if your daughter had cancer, you would tell people," he said. "We are contributing the stigma our unwillingness to talk about this openly."
Christie continued, adding that "We need to talk about this in ways that are not only clinical, but are personal. And if the president stands there with the seal of the presidency, and talks about this from a personal perspective, I think it begins to lower the stigma."
Bush, who has sometimes struggled to connect personally with voters, spoke candidly about how his daughter's struggle with addiction, which played out in the public while he served as governor of Florida, helped him relate. "The pain that you feel when you have a loved one who has addiction challenges and spirals out of control is something is shared with a whole lot of people," he said. "I could go in my public life and I could go to the chamber of commerce and someone would look at me with a feeling that I felt. I could just look them in the eyes and know."
While looking into the eyes of her stepdaughter, Fiorina said she knew something was not right. "The light, the sparkle she once had, left her," Fiorina recalled Tuesday. "And what remained was a dull, flat void. It is the look of hopelessness. It is the look that too many of us see. And it is that look that haunts me most when I think of her." Her stepdaughter, Lori, passed away from addiction in 2009.
Fiorina dove into greater detail than she usually does in talking about losing her stepdaughter, telling those gathered that she remembers begging a judge not to send Lori back to jail because she knew that it would not help. Her family only learned of Lori's death when two officers came to their home, she said. "At the moment those two police officers delivered the news to Frank and me, we lost both the woman that Lori was and the woman she could have been."
Kasich mentioned that among the people gathered for Tuesday's forum, there were surely those who suffered from addiction themselves, and he made a direct personal plea to people to hang in there. "You just can't give up," he firmly told them. "I don't want you to give up. You cannot give up because there is a purpose for your life. Do you understand this? Everybody in this room has a God-given purpose."
Kasich continued, adding "I have no clue how hard it must be. I don't know, it must be just impossible. But if you can climb out of it, people will learn from you." He went silent at one point, appearing to choke up for a moment, before saying, "there's always room for miracles … there's always room for one more."
"I liked that a lot of them had done their homework, were well-versed, were speaking from an empathetic understanding of a disease process, that it's truly a disease," said Kathleen Beede of Dover, who also has a family member in recovery.
"They are all saying the right things. I think they've all learned a lot in the last year campaigning in this state," added Kerry Norton, the chief operating officer of Hope on Haven Hill, a recovery center in Rochester. She said her son has been in recovery from heroin addiction for the last year.
Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have devoted significant time and resources to the issue as well. Former president Bill Clinton, stumping on behalf of his wife yesterday for the first time in New Hampshire, spoke emotionally about how three personal friends of his have had children who suffered from addiction.
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen praised activists for continually pressing presidential candidates on their drug addiction proposals at countless town halls across the state this year. "Thank you to the people who have raised the issue in the presidential campaign," she said. "That has gotten national attention at a critical time and it's very important. Sadly, it's very bipartisan."
There is concern from some members of the recovery community in New Hampshire that after the primary is over, after the candidates leave, and the bright camera lights and national spotlight shifts, that the focus on addressing addiction issues will lapse, with one questioner even asking what happens then.
"It's a big concern that they are coming here to just to appease a few people in New Hampshire," Beede added. "They are recognizing that this is a national epidemic and there needs to be huge changes all over the country. So I'm hoping that they will do the things that they say they want to do."