Love trumps rhetoric in Christie’s speech on addiction

Gov. Paul LePage and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are often talked about for their similarities and their close ties.

Christie spent millions in corporate dollars to re-elect LePage through the Republican Governors Association, and LePage was the first notable endorsement for Christie’s presidential run.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Jim Young | Reuters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Jim Young | Reuters

They have similar bracing personalities, both like to yell and both have a penchant for pushing the bounds of legality and appropriateness.

But a few weeks ago, during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Christie showed a different side of himself.

He told the story of his mother’s lifelong battle with tobacco addiction and talked about a close friend from law school — the best, brightest and most successful of his friends from that era — who became addicted to drugs and lost everything: His wife, his family, his house, his job and, ultimately, his life.

“The guy had everything,” Christie said. And then he hurt his back running.

A trip to the doctor later, he’s taking painkillers that mushroomed into an addiction that chased him for 10 years.

He was found dead in a motel room. He was 52. “By every measure that we define success in this country, this guy had it,” Christie said.

“He’s a drug addict, and he couldn’t get help,” Christie continued. “And he’s dead.”

“When I sat there as the governor of New Jersey at his funeral and looked across the pew at his three daughters sobbing because their dad is gone, there but for the grace of God go I. It can happen to anyone.”

In just six minutes, Christie showed something that’s missing from LePage and particularly from his take on addiction and the toll it’s taking on Maine.

He showed empathy. His personal experience of losing his friend broke down the walls of politics and allowed him to see addiction as it truly exists.

“So we need to start treating people in this country and not jailing them,” Christie said. “We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious, every life is an individual gift from God. And we have to stop judging and start giving them the tools they need to get better.”

With a heartfelt story, Christie restored humanity to the thousands of people who have had it robbed from them by addiction and politics.

Because it was his friend, the dead drug addict was no longer the “other,” someone to be thrown away, punished and forgotten.

And in that there is a lesson.

David McCarthy died of a heroin overdose in Falmouth. A child of privilege, he died before his life really began. His parents decided to fight back by telling his story.

While the pattern is breaking, talking about the cause of death in a drug overdose situation still isn’t common. There’s shame for the person who has died and the family and friends they leave behind.

But McCarthy’s family decided that to help others, they had to tell David’s story.

It’s heartbreaking and raw, and it evokes genuine anger for the people who gave David the drugs that ended his life and almost killed his brother just a few days later.

It takes David, who became a statistic in the heroin plague and turned him back into a real person. It reminds us that he could have been my child or yours.

Imperfect, fragile, vulnerable. There but for the grace of God go us all.

I believe that LePage is motivated by a real and sincere desire to fight dangerous, illegal drugs. But the way he’s going about it — ultimatums, threats and blame — is all wrong.

He’s motivated by anger. He is driven by it. Blinded by it at times.

But he’s forgotten about the people — struggling to escape the needle, the pill or the bottle. He’s content to let them slip away with a one-sided focus on putting people in jail.

He threatens the Legislature and blames them for a drug crisis that’s far bigger than Maine. He seems determined to call out the National Guard to turn the cold drug war into a hot one.

He brags about arrest numbers, while ignoring the human casualties.

He did his best to block access to Narcan, an anti-overdose medication that can save the life of someone who has overdosed.

Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond, often a target for LePage’s anger, put it this way: “We have to take crime seriously and arrest those who would poison our citizens, but the unfortunate reality is that as long as the demand for drugs exists, every trafficker we arrest will simply be replaced by another one.”

By telling their stories, Christie and the McCarthy family are breaking down the prejudice and stereotypes that go with drug addiction and that keep it hidden in the shadows.

They remind us that bad things can happen to people just like us, and that drug addiction isn’t limited to “other” people.

And by sharing their personal, devastating stories, they are helping other families to realize that they are not alone.

Now it’s time for public policy to catch up.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at