GOP Candidates Get Personal About Addiction in New Hampshire

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic at Southern New Hampshire University, Jan. 5, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. Mary Schwalm/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina speaks at the New Hampshire Forum on Addiction and the Heroin Epidemic at Southern New Hampshire University, Jan. 5, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.

In the midst of a drug epidemic sweeping the state, several GOP candidates shared their own families’ devastating stories of addiction on Tuesday, joining state leaders at the Addiction Policy Forum at Southern New Hampshire University.

A recent poll by ABC affiliate WMUR and the University of New Hampshire showed for the first time in eight years, Granite State voters don’t view the economy as the top issue facing the state, but rather its skyrocketing rate of overdoses.

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina sat on a panel for nearly an hour, as she gave some of the most detailed remarks to date on her stepdaughter’s addiction struggle, which eventually led to her death.

“There’s an old saying,” Fiorina said. “The eyes are the window to the soul. And as Lori grew progressively sicker, the sparkle, the potential, the possibilities that had once filled her life – disappeared from behind her eyes.”

As the conversation turned to second chances, Fiorina recalled “standing in front of a judge, begging him not to send her back to prison.”

In the end, her pleas didn’t work – and Fiorina now finds herself calling for treatment-based solutions.

“I know that experience did not help,” she said of her stepdaughter’s imprisonment, “because I saw her as she came out.”

Overdoses now claim 129 lives a day in the U.S., according to organizer Jessica Nickel.

“That’s like two regional airliners,” she told ABC News. “Or the graduating class of a high school. If two regional airliners went down every day in the U.S., we would be up in arms about it. And we’re doing nothing.”

Nickel had a personal connection with Ohio governor John Kasich, who was surprised to see her leading the event. The two met nearly twenty years ago, when Kasich heard her story of growing up on the streets as the daughter of heroin addicts. She lived in a car throughout much of high school, but somehow worked her way to Princeton.

“You believe in miracles?” Kasich asked the audience, largely composed of recovering addicts. “Look in Jessica. You have to believe in yours.” “Miracles are never used up,” Kasich said, choking back tears. “There’s always room for one more.”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush shed light on his daughter’s experience with drug abuse, saying the experience affected his views on policy.

“I will never forget the drug court graduation she had in Orlando,” Bush said.

Chris Christie, who has made drugs a centerpiece of his campaign, noted that addiction is still stigmatized.

“You don’t go to a neighborhood dinner party and say ‘hey my daughter is addicted to heroin, what’s new with you?’” the New Jersey governor deadpanned. “But if your daughter had cancer, you would tell them.”

That silence, he added, has resulted in little media attention. But he noted the bank of television cameras at the back of the room.

“You’re starting to get it,” he said.

That message, said recovery worker Sue Thistle, may have earned her vote.

“I didn’t like him coming into today,” she said. “But I’ve been in the addiction field a long time, and I know when somebody knows what they’re doing.”

Attendees warned that it will take more than words to alleviate the crisis. Last year New Hampshire saw more overdose deaths than highway fatalities – and the “Live Free or Die State” doesn’t have seat belt laws.