Drug Addiction Used to End Political Careers, but That's Finally Changing
Around the country, candidates for local office are opening up about their histories of drug use.
Bethany Hallam, a candidate for local office in Pennsylvania who has freely discussed her struggles with addiction. Photo by author.
Two and a half years ago, Bethany Hallam was lying in a cell in the Allegheny County Jail, sick from withdrawal. “I couldn’t eat. I was physically ill,” she recalls. She had swallowed pain pills or shot heroin daily for years and had racked up convictions for DUI and drug possession. Then she failed a urine test while on parole, sending her to the jail. It was, she felt, was rock bottom. “I realized I wanted so much more from my life,” Hallam says.
Today the 29-year-old office administrator is a candidate for Allegheny County Council, doing the door-knocking, hand-shaking work of someone seeking local office in the Pittsburgh area. At a gathering of Democrats at the Warehouse Pub & Grub, she flashes a bright white smile and wears a blue blazer, jeans, and sleek black running shoes. “A lot of people give me shit because I wear sneakers on the campaign trail,” she tells a candidate for school board, as they commiserate about the endless miles walked. “What do they want me to wear?”
Several people congratulate her on a recent victory of sorts: The county Democratic committee voted on endorsements, and while the party insiders picked her opponent—who has held the seat for 20 years—Hallam got 44 percent of committee members’ votes, a strong showing for a first-time candidate running against an entrenched incumbent. She feels good. If she can make up the gap by engaging voters outside the establishment for the May 15 primary, she can nab the nomination. “I can work my way with the younger, more urban vote,” she says.
Hallam is one of a handful of candidates around the country who are running for local office despite having criminal records or a history of drug use—features that might have been disqualifying as recently as a few years ago. Once a rap sheet was a career-killer in politics, and drug use was stigmatized—so much so that college-aged cannabis smoking caused Judge Douglas Ginsburg to withdraw from a Supreme Court nomination in 1987 and led to Bill Clinton’s infamous “I didn’t inhale” excuse in 1992. But attitudes are changing.
One likely reason for that is that substance use has swamped the US. More than 11 million Americans misused opioids in 2016, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report. The percentage of Americans struggling with alcohol use disorders rose from 8.5 to 12.3 percent between 2003 and 2013, according to one study.
Intimately familiar as so many voters are with substance misuse, they may view former drug users less harshly and see overcoming addiction as a sign of strength. “I think [overcoming addiction] could be a positive given how many families have been affected by drug use,” says G. Terry Madonna, a pollster, professor, and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
In Akron, Ohio, social worker Tammy Cummings is trying to unseat a city councilman. Cummings, 41, has convictions for theft, receiving stolen property, criminal trespass, and threatening domestic violence—all, she says, the result of years of dealing with alcoholism. “I don’t walk up to someone’s door and say, ‘I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’ve been in jail and I want to represent you,’” she says. She’s keener to talk about public transportation and trash removal.
But if anyone asks, she’s open about it. “I use my life experience,” says Cummings, who has been sober since 2013. “Who else can relate to a single mom in the projects? I can because I’ve been there.” (Like the other candidates mentioned in this piece, she made a statement acknowledging her past when she began her run.)
Joey Grist, a former member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, fell into frequent cocaine and meth use after a reelection loss in 2003. Now 13 years sober, Grist, 62, is running for a seat on the state Transportation Commission as a Democrat.
“I think people are more accepting of [drug use] because it’s touched their lives,” he says. “I think people are happy for me for being better.”
Grist says his turnaround came when a police officer stopped him while driving and he had a crack pipe. Right then, he decided his drug years had come to an end. “I told him I was tired and I handed it over,” Grist recalled. “He said I was the nicest crackhead he had ever met.” Grist completed an accelerated rehabilitation program and the charges were erased.
He now works as a purchasing agent for a hospital and serves on the state’s Alcohol and Drug Advisory Council. The role has made Grist a go-to in his rural network for people who need a bed in a rehab for themselves or a family member. “It’s Northern Mississippi,” he says. “Everyone knows me.”
In the 2018 cycle, one rife with first-time candidates, a few carried histories of drug use. Caroline Walker, running for the North Carolina Senate, posted a campaign video detailing her descent into alcoholism following a job loss and relating it to her political values—the center that treated her cut services after the state refused additional Obamacare funds.
Similarly, Hallam says that her five months behind bars inspired one of her key issues: reforming the jail in which she was an inmate.
“The biggest thing is trans women being housed with men,” she says. “They are physically and sexually assaulted.” She also talks about “feminine hygiene products being withheld as a form of punishment. So if someone on the pod is being loud or violating the rules, then no one gets pads or tampons for the next couple days. The same with toilet paper; they use toilet paper as a commodity in there. It can be taken away at their leisure. The showers are disgusting.”
The Allegheny County Jail has been the subject of several scandals in the past five years: A pattern of inmate deaths prompted an outcry, the jail is facing a lawsuit alleging medical mistreatment of an inmate, the hospital that receives inmates has expressed alarm over the state of the patients, and four lawsuits from 2017 alone allege sexual assault within its walls. Last year, a transgender inmate reported that she was raped by the man she shared a cell with.
Hallam wants to improve human services to inmates, increase resources for recovery, and force compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which is also a demand from advocacy groups.
In an email, Warden Orlando Harper wrote that housing decisions for transgender inmates are “made on a case by case basis.” He denied that sanitary napkins or toilet paper are withheld as punishment. He added that “the facility is currently undergoing the process to be certified by PREA” and noted that the jail contracts with an outside group, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, to handle complaints of sexual assault or harassment.
Hallam’s long path to that jail began when she was prescribed painkillers for knee injuries from high school lacrosse, she says. She graduated to illicit pill-popping, then heroin. Even when she seemed at her most functional—studying public relations at Duquesne University while waitressing and sitting on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee—her every spare dollar went to drugs. After college, she was facing homelessness and used opioids to stave off withdrawal. She says she has been clean since her 2016 stint in jail and is grateful every day for a “clear head.”
Many voters respond to her experience by relaying their own opioid tragedies, she says. “I knew that there were going to be some people the story resonated with... but I didn’t realize how many have been affected personally by it.”
Hallam’s opponent, John DeFazio, Jr., is a 77-year-old steel union representative. “It’s been super civil,” Hallam says of the race. “He’s not a bad human. I don’t have anything negative to say about him.” She says DeFazio has run unopposed for several elections and constituents deserve a choice, which is why she’s in the race. (DeFazio did not respond to an email requesting an interview.)
Hallam says she has heard of a whisper campaign that she is a felon and therefore couldn’t take the seat if elected. She has not been convicted of a felony, but she welcomes questions about her eligibility. “I want to hear people’s concerns,” she says.
A hundred miles away, the race between Tammy Cummings and incumbent Donnie Kammer in a Democratic primary for Akron’s mixed-income Ward 7 has been anything but civil.
Kammer asked the local elections board to disqualify Cummings, claiming she misled residents about the purpose of the signatures she collected to be on the ballot. At a hearing, he attacked her personally in her presence, stating that Cummings has “an extensive criminal record and civil actions that depict an ongoing irresponsibility of paying fines and liens.” (This last allegation apparently refers to parking tickets.)
The board refused to disqualify Cummings. Kammer did not respond to an email requesting an interview.
Cummings, a single mother of four, says she had a difficult life, getting married at age 16 and passing through several tumultuous relationships, a long bout of alcoholism, and a few struggles with social service agencies for custody of her children.
In December of 2012, her boyfriend bit her during a drunken argument, she says. She went to Akron General to have the bite mark examined. There police heard her yell “hurry the fuck up” as her eight-year-old son struggled to put a dollar in a vending machine. She was drunk, she recalls, and they arrested her for making a domestic violence threat.
Cummings spent the holidays in a local jail. “When I heard those fireworks going off [at New Year’s] and I didn’t know where my son was, that was the worst moment of my life,” she recalls.
She says she got sober soon after and earned a degree in social work. She now works as a recovery coach for a few nonprofit agencies. She decided to run after talking to clients about problems like illegal trash heaps and non-working street lights; some said they didn’t know who their elected officials were. “I’ve always had a heart in looking after other people,” she says. “It’s natural for me to go into an area and help lift people up.”
Aside from her opponent’s accusations, she hasn’t heard a negative word about her past, she says. “Some people tell me, ‘I did some stupid stuff, too.’”
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