HOOKSETT, New Hampshire — Ted Cruz spent a chunk of Thursday afternoon steeped in an issue that every candidate has had to discuss on the campaign trail this cycle: drug addiction.
Cruz spoke and sat on a panel at an addiction policy forum at the Emmanuel Baptist Church here, a change of pace from his usual town halls and retail stops. The event also featured Vermont governor Peter Shumlin, who spoke before Cruz arrived.
New Hampshire, like other New England states, has been wracked by a heroin crisis, and the topic frequently comes up at candidate events here. Some of the candidates have families that have been touched by addiction — Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, for example — and Cruz is no exception. His older half-sister Miriam died of a drug overdose in 2011.
Speaking to a quiet church that was perhaps three-quarters full, an emotional-sounding Cruz told Miriam’s story. Cruz has talked about Miriam at other stops in New Hampshire recently, but this time he went into more detail than he has yet in front of an audience (though he has written a detailed version of the story in his book A Time For Truth). Miriam, whom Cruz describes as a beloved older sister but who had issues with anger, struggled with addiction throughout most of her life, and at one point Cruz and his father intervened to try and get her out of a crack house in which she was living in Philadelphia. Cruz took out a $20,000 advance on a credit card to get his nephew, Miriam’s son, into boarding school. Though Miriam seemed like she was doing better for a while, Cruz said, his nephew Joey found her dead in 2011.
“The coroner ruled it accidental,” Cruz said. “We’ll never know. We just got the call one day, Miriam was gone.”
“These tragedies are happening to human lives all over this country,” Cruz said.
Cruz then contrasted Miriam’s story with a more hopeful tale: that of his father. In Cruz’s telling, his father Rafael was a “drunk,” when Cruz was a small child, culminating in his father moving out, then finding religion, which led him back to Cruz and his mother.
Cruz reeled off a list of statistics about the drug problem in New Hampshire — 400 overdose deaths last year alone, for example — occasionally glancing at notes.
On policy, Cruz stressed the importance of Alcoholics Anonymous-style programs.
“Those programs are what we need more and more of,” Cruz said, though he acknowledged “not everyone is gonna be helped, but each of us on the ground can make a real difference.”
“It’s certainly not going to be Washington, D.C., that steps in and solves these problems,” Cruz said.
Cruz then, as he does on the stump, pivoted to border security, saying that the cartels that bring over people are also trafficking drugs.
Cruz included a shot at Sean Penn, who recently wrote a controversial profile of Sinaloa cartel chief El Chapo in Rolling Stone magazine for which he was given rare access.
“Sean Penn seems to think he is a sexy and attractive character,” Cruz said. “What a cute and chic thing to celebrate, someone who murders and destroys lives for a living.”
Cruz then participated in a panel that included the local police chief, several recovery and prevention specialists, and Paul Porter, a supporter of his who is in recovery and gave an emotional and at times tearful speech before Cruz’s speech about his long struggle getting clean.
The panel also featured Doug Griffin, of Newton, New Hampshire, who lost his daughter Courtney to an overdose in 2014 and has become an advocate on the issue since then. On the panel, Griffin described seeking help for his daughter and being told by his insurance company that it wasn’t a “life or death” situation.
Griffin told BuzzFeed News after the panel he appreciated Cruz staying on topic.
“I liked his temperament,” Griffin said. “He didn’t say the word Donald Trump once. This is not about Donald Trump, this is about addiction, and I think he kept right on point. He could have stood up and waved the Ted Cruz flag but he didn’t.”
“That’s what I anticipated, that he’d get up and just talk shit for a while and then he’d start talking, but instead he stayed right with the issue,” Griffin said.
Kim Gilman, of Manchester, said she appreciated presidential candidates talking about the issue and thus shedding light on it.
“It’s personal,” Gilman said. “And everyone is affected by it.”