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In Pennsylvania special election, candidates clash over how to combat opioid crisis

Conservatives’ emphasis on small government and tough-on-crime policies can be an uncomfortable fit for a drug epidemic in their own backyard.
Image: A man uses heroin in a tent
A man uses heroin in a tent under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in the Kensington section of Philadelphia which has become a hub for heroin use on Jan. 24, 2018 in Philadelphia.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Last year, when the mother of an opioid addict testified before Pennsylvania lawmakers, Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone said he wanted to help. But he also said the government could only do so much, since it must make tough budgeting decisions.

“People are in my office all day long, I'm sure it's the same with all my colleagues here, you know, ‘We need more funding, we need more funding,’” Saccone said at a field hearing last March.

“We don't have any more funding, OK? We're going to try to cut the budget. So, where do I take it from?” he asked the woman, who sat quietly a few feet away. “Do I take it from the autistic children?”

“You don't have to answer that right now, but just think about it,” he added.

Saccone is now running for Congress in a special election next week that may provide insight into how voters in one of the nation’s hardest-hit regions view the opioid epidemic. The race, in Pennsylvania's 18th District, is seen as a bellwether ahead of November’s midterm elections, when the opioid crisis is expected to come up in important races.

Saccone’s comments — video of which was shared by the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge — show how conservatives’ typical emphasis on small government and tough-on-crime policies can be an uncomfortable fit for a drug epidemic in their own backyard.

At another field hearing — a congressional hearing held outside Washington — last February, Saccone said that while government has a role to play, “We can't legislate or treat our way out of this problem; it's much bigger than that.”

“I think it's time for us to admit that we're fighting a culture that promotes rebelliousness and vulgarity, disrespect, selfishness,” he said. “We have to be willing to accept that we need to take back our youth and restore the traditional values that we all grew up with around here, because they've all deteriorated.”

Image: Rick Saccone
State Rep. Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, talks about his campaign at his headquarters in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania on Feb. 7, 2018.Keith Srakocic / AP file

Saccone’s Democratic opponent, Conor Lamb, meanwhile, has said government needs to play a leading role in addressing the crisis, listing it first on the part of his website that outlines his priorities.

“There is a huge role for the government to play here,” Lamb said at the candidates' final debate Saturday night. “Only the government can build those [treatment] facilities and fill them with beds and fill them with qualified staff. And only the government can have the health insurance programs to support these people.”

Saccone, when pressed on the issue Saturday, said he did support taxpayer-funded programs, but said the “whole society has to be involved,” from faith leaders to police officers to educators and parents.

“The left's solution to everything is a big government solution,” he said.

While the opioid epidemic has simmered in other recent elections, it’s become a front-burner issue in this Western Pennsylvania election scheduled for March 13, which was triggered when the Republican incumbent, Tim Murphy, resigned last year after admitting to an affair.

“Everybody knows somebody who has been affected by this,” Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist who lives in the district, said of the opioid crisis. “There are probably not many families that have not been touched by this epidemic.”

Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District includes Pittsburgh suburbs and more rural areas, such as Washington County, which once saw 17 overdoses in a single night, despite having a population of just over 200,000.

Image: Conor Lamb
Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, talks about his campaign at his headquarters in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania on Feb. 7, 2018.Keith Srakocic file / AP

A spokesman for Saccone said that he has a strong record of fighting the opioid epidemic and that he helped pass important legislation in the state House to prevent drug addiction and promote access to health care treatment.

“His efforts to prevent addiction have already produced tangible results,” the spokesman, Patrick McCann, said in a statement. “Since the legislation passed, there has been a 12 percent drop in opioid prescriptions in the state of Pennsylvania. As a leader on the issue in the State House, Rick will bring that experience to Congress.”

Republicans are also running a tough ad accusing Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, of being soft on crime for cutting a plea bargain with a drug kingpin than involved dropping 269 charges.

Lamb has blasted the ad, noting the dealer was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and his campaign pointed to a article that called the commercial “flimsy and misleading.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for American Bridge, said Saccone’s comments on the opioid epidemic show he doesn’t understand the issue and won’t push for the necessary help from Washington.

"Rick Saccone’s dangerously ignorant and out of touch approach to the opioid crisis proves he cannot be the leader that suffering families need,” he said.

Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant in Pennsylvania, said Lamb and Saccone’s divisions are instructive.

“I'd wager that there's a sizable number of people who would say both approaches are reasonable and worthwhile,” Nicholas said. “It does demonstrate the smaller government vs. larger government schism between the two candidates and that could be informational to undecided voters.”