When Sen. Rob Portman’s campaign launched the 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.
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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, only works 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.”
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The fight isn’t new to Portman. 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 — cosponsored by 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 Republican 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.
Because of their efforts, the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America gave Portman and then President Bill Clinton a gold ID bracelet with Gardner’s name. Portman accepted the honor, then shared statistics he’d gathered on the war on drugs with Gardner’s mother.
“How’s that helping me?” she asked.
Portman said the question recast the issue for him. He founded the Coalition for a Drug Free Cincinnati — now Prevention First — and chaired the organization for nine years.
‘I think that’s greatly disingenuous’
Still, some question his commitment. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Portman’s Democratic opponent in this year’s Senate race, said even as Portman advocated for his Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, he voted against a funding bill last year 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,” Strickland 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” by the drug epidemic. “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 doctor’s offices, talking to law enforcement and even peering in windows. Early one morning, he drove into the parking lot of one establishment near Ironton and counted 33 cars in the lot with a line of people waiting 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. Many of the 20 recommendations they came up with are 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 an 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 also say Strickland himself voted against Labor-Health spending bills while in Congress that included money to tackle the drug crisis.
Emily Benavides, a Portman spokeswoman, said he opposed the omnibus spending bill because “it turned into a massive, 2,000-page, nearly $2 trillion spending bill no one had a chance to read.”
Beyond highlighting his work on the drug issue, Portman may have an added incentive for focusing voter attention on local issues.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Elects the President,” said Portman wants to separate himself from the political environment surrounding the party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump.
‘“The actual content of the ad is maybe less important than the idea that he is trying to put a positive message out there,” Kondik said.
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