Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jun 2001
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2001 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Matthai Chakko Kuruvila
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Lawmaker Gets Personal

State Sen. Liz Figueroa of Fremont speaks to legislators about losing two 
brothers to heroin addiction during debate on drug treatments.

The state Senate was in the midst of a debate on licensing drug and alcohol 
counselors when Sen. Liz Figueroa decided it was the perfect time to share 
an intensely personal revelation that both stunned -- and moved -- her 

"Sixteen years ago, members, I lost a brother to heroin addiction," the 
Fremont Democratic state senator said during a Tuesday debate on the 
legislation. "And this Saturday afternoon, I lost another brother to heroin 

For Figueroa, it was a singular moment that connected her political life 
with a brutal chapter of her personal life. As she would later say in an 
interview, "the timing was perfect."

Her decision to speak came only days after her brother, 46-year-old San 
Jose resident Michael Figueroa, died while in a coma caused by an overdose. 
Figueroa said she and her mother helped make the decision to take him off 
life support.

Her other brother, Anthony Figueroa, had died 16 years ago, when he was 32, 
in a nearly identical way. Still grieving, Figueroa decided that speaking 
openly would be the most poignant way to emphasize the need for effective 
drug rehabilitation programs.

"We talk about infrastructure, and we talk about investing in the future," 
Figueroa said on the Senate floor, according to a transcript provided by 
her office. "We need qualified programs, and we need qualified individuals 
providing services to our loved ones."

The Senate bill -- sponsored by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, which 
passed 24-9 -- has an increased importance after the passage last fall of 
Proposition 36, which required the treatment rather than the incarceration 
of non-violent drug offenders. The bill now goes before the Assembly.

But some members of the Senate missed Figueroa's emotional moment. Sen Jim 
Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, who voted against the bill, said he didn't hear 
Figueroa speak.

Compelling speech

Vasconcellos lamented the fact that more politicians didn't speak with the 
honesty of personal experience, as Figueroa did. He said senators were 
riveted by her remarks.

"She was speaking so much from the heart, people were touched by it and 
drawn to it," Vasconcellos said. "It was so raw and so true and so 
compelling. She's a great model for legislators and politics."

Figueroa, 50, said Proposition 36 and Vasconcellos' bill each had 
particular relevance for her: Both of her brothers had struggled with 
addiction from their teen years until they died. Both of her brothers had 
been imprisoned; Michael Figueroa had "spent the majority of his adult life 

Despite her parents' repeated efforts to send their sons to rehabilitation 
clinics, neither sibling found much success. But Figueroa said that 
increased and improved treatment might have saved her brothers. That's why 
she spoke in favor of the bill.

It's a mystery why she turned out to be so different from her brothers, she 
said. All three had devoted, principled parents as they grew up in San 
Mateo. They went to good schools, she said.

"All three of us had some of the same personality traits," Figueroa said. 
"We are risk-takers. We are willing to take our chances. I did it one way, 
and they did it another."

At age 18, she became a San Mateo human relations commissioner, which began 
a lifelong involvement in politics. Her brothers soon became hooked on heroin.

She said that "early on, they found success and gratification and peer 
respect and the adrenaline high going in one direction. I got it in 
politics, which gave me the same rush."

Figueroa said she hoped her speech might take away some of the stigma many 
families feel about drug abuse problems, while humanizing the public's 
image of politicians.

"Maybe it could assist others," she said. "If it could happen in my family, 
it could happen in other families."

Similar struggles

After she spoke, four senators came to her privately, telling her that they 
too had struggled with drug addiction in their immediate families. She said 
several others who work in the Capitol also had come to her with similar 

Personalizing legislation is not uncommon.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn, D-Campbell, who suffered abuse as a child, has 
become a powerful advocate against domestic violence. Sen. Jack Scott, 
D-Pasadena, whose son was killed in a gun accident in 1993, is one of the 
Legislature's strongest voices for more gun control. A bitter divorce and 
custody battle led former Sen. Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, to become the 
champion of fathers' rights.

Figueroa said for her these are not just pieces of legislation.

"These are policies that affect every facet of our lives," Figueroa said. 
"If we can put a face to some of these problems, people get it."

Contact Matthai Chakko Kuruvila at  or (510) 790-7316.
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