Pubdate: Sun, 03 Jul 2016
Source: Columbus Dispatch (OH)
Copyright: 2016 The Columbus Dispatch
Author: Jessica Wehrman


WASHINGTON - When Sen. Rob Portman's campaign launched its first TV 
ads of 2016, it wasn't hard to sense a theme.

The first ad focused on Portman's work to fight Ohio's drug crisis. 
The second told the story of Tyler Campbell, a young man from 
Pickerington who died of a heroin overdose. A third told of a 
Lakewood woman who is a recovering heroin addict. And a fourth told 
the story of a young woman from Carrollton who died of a heroin overdose.

To watch the ads, you'd think Portman, a longtime lawmaker who has 
established himself as a fiscal policy wonk and a budget expert in 
the Senate, works only on drug issues. But his choice is telling: 
Portman, still basically unknown among 34 percent of voters in the 
most recent Quinnipiac University poll of his race, is working hard 
to define himself - and he's focusing on an issue he believes 
resonates in the state.

"He's got a good story to tell," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor 
with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "But this is part of 
Portman defining Portman."

That's not to be cynical: Portman has been working on the drug issue 
for years. Name virtually any recent federal drug legislation - the 
Drug-Free Workplace Act, the Drug-Free Communities Act, the Drug-Free 
Media Campaign - and you'll find Portman's fingerprints on it.

This year, his focus has been the Comprehensive Addiction and 
Recovery Act, a bill that would award grants to fight opioid and 
heroin use, with a particular focus on prevention and treatment. The 
bill - co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode 
Island - passed the Senate in March.

"This is the bill right now," said Marcia Lee Taylor, president and 
CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, saying the bill "pulls 
together all the different pieces" of the war on opioids and heroin.

Portman began working on the drug issue as a young GOP congressman 
representing southern Ohio, when he met the mother of a man named 
Jeff Gardner, who died of a heart attack after smoking marijuana and 
huffing gasoline.

The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America gave Portman and 
President Bill Clinton a gold ID bracelet bearing Gardner's name. 
Portman accepted the honor, then met with Gardner's mother.

Portman prepared by gathering statistics on the war on drugs. He 
shared the information with Gardner's mother.

"How's that helping me?" she asked.

The question recast the issue in Portman's mind. He founded the 
Coalition for a Drug Free Cincinnati - now known as PreventionFIRST! 
- - chairing it for nine years. To him, drugs affect everything - 
crime, welfare, social issues.

Still, some question his commitment.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Portman's Democratic opponent, said 
even as Portman advocated for the Comprehensive Addiction and 
Recovery Act, he voted last year against a funding bill that would 
have included money to implement it.

"Sen. Portman has claimed to be very concerned about this issue, and 
I applaud him for that," he said, "But I am really disturbed that 
he's going around Ohio talking about his concerns without being very 
candid with people and not telling them he voted against funding for 
it. ... I think that's greatly disingenuous."

Strickland said coroners, medical and mental health professionals 
across the state are being overwhelmed. "They need resources," he said.

Strickland's work on the issue began when he was in Congress as well. 
He said when he began to hear about doctors prescribing painkillers 
under false circumstances, he undertook his own investigation, 
visiting the offices, looking in windows, talking to law enforcement. 
Early one morning, he drove into the parking lot of one establishment 
near Ironton. He counted 33 cars in the lot and a line of people 
outside. "It was obvious to me that these doctors were violating 
their Hippocratic oaths and were selling death," he said.

When Strickland became governor, he launched a task force aimed at 
fighting the drug problem. They came up with 20 recommendations - many now law.

He has a personal connection as well: Not long ago, he lost a nephew 
to Oxycontin addiction.

"My difference with Sen. Portman on this issue is not that I question 
his concern," he said. " But I question his unwillingness to really 
vote for the resources needed."

Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National 
Drug Control Policy, said while Portman's bill has provisions that 
the White House supports, the bill doesn't provide enough money for treatment.

"I do not think there's adequate enough response for us to turn the 
corner on this epidemic," he said.

But Portman's staff points to several comments Botticelli has made 
praising the bill. In March, Botticelli said the bill is "critically 
important to make headway in terms of this epidemic."

They say Strickland himself voted against Labor-Health spending bills 
while in Congress that included money to tackle the drug crisis.

"Rob worked in a bipartisan way to help secure the anti-heroin 
funding in the omnibus," said Emily Benavides, a Portman spokeswoman, 
saying he opposed the bill because "it turned into a massive, 
2,000-page, nearly $2 trillion spending bill no one had a chance to read."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom