New Hampshire’s status as the first primary state in the nation has had one clear policy consequence in 2016: It has turned a New England heroin epidemic into a national political conversation. And so, with five days to go until votes are cast, Ted Cruz took a break from his hectic town hall circuit to speak at a church here in Hooksett, New Hampshire, about his family’s history of addiction.
As the headliner of the Addiction Policy Forum, hosted by a Baptist church and a half-dozen recovery organizations, Cruz told two personal stories he’s offered before. The first was about his half sister, Miriam, who died of a drug overdose in 2011. Cruz recalled driving from Washington, DC, to Philadelphia, where he and his father picked up Miriam from the crack house where she was living and, over the course of five hours at Denny’s, tried desperately to help her piece her life back together. After his sister’s death, Cruz took a $20,000 loan to pay for his nephew, Miriam’s son, to go to boarding school. It’s a difficult story, and he tells it well. Then he talked about his father, Rafael, who left Ted and his mother behind in Calgary when the future senator was three years old, only to find Christ in Texas and return to the family. When he was finished, the mostly partisan crowd offered a chorus of “amen!”; it’s a story about his father’s faith that in actuality is a story of his own.
And if that’s how his speech had ended, it would have been in line with the way a number of candidates have talked about drug addiction in New Hampshire during the 2016 campaign—heartbreak at the human toll (New Hampshire averaged more than a death a day from overdoses in 2015), and a promise to act. But what Cruz really seemed to want to talk about was something else—the flood of “undocumented Democrats” coming across the border, and the urgent need for a magnificent wall to stop them. Take care of the illegal immigration, his argument goes, and you’ll take care of your drug problem.
“I would invite you to do as I have, to meet with farmers and ranchers [in Texas] who will show you photographs of dead body after dead body after dead body, of women and children abandoned and left to die in the desert,” he said. “Local farmers for whom it has become sadly a recurring experience to just encounter dead bodies of people being trafficked in, abused and abandoned by the coyotes and left to die. And it is the very same cartels that are trafficking in human beings, that are physically abusing these human beings, that are sexually abusing these human beings, that are selling God’s creatures into sexual slavery. It is these very same cartels that are the drug cartels, that are bringing heroin.”
He had a specific cartel in mind:
El Chapo. You know, Sean Penn seems to think he is a sexy and attractive character. I so appreciate Hollywood for glorifying vicious homicidal killers. What a cute and chic thing to celebrate. Someone who murders and destroys lives for a living. El Chapo’s organization brings vast quantities of drugs into this country, vast quantities of heroin. Heroin confiscation at the border have increased from about 556 kilos in 2008 to 2,100 kilos in 2012. When the border’s not secure, that’s what happens: You have drugs flooding into this country. And you have people in New Hampshire and elsewhere, they sometimes start with prescription painkillers, but those become harder and harder to get and they turn to heroin. if we want to turn around the drug crisis, we have got to finally and permanently secure the border. Now I tell you, we know how to do this. We’re told by the media over and over again, this problem can’t be solved. You can’t secure the border. How many times have you heard a reporter say, ‘If you build a 10-foot wall, they’ll build an 11-foot ladder.’ Reporters think they’re very clever. Well, if you want to know how walls work, I invite you all to come to Israel.
From there, Cruz introduced the audience to another villain, what he often refers to on the stump as the “Washington cartel.” “Solving the drug problem becomes de-emphasized because [Republicans’] policy view instead is to open the borders to illegal immigration,” Cruz said. “On the Democratic side, you know there’s a new term for illegal immigrants. It’s called ‘undocumented Democrats.'” He wandered even further into his stump speech, connecting the dots from the heroin crisis to the lack of a decent fence on the border, to the stagnation of Americans’ wages and the dissatisfaction of the American middle class with Washington politicians. If you showed up late, you might have been surprised to hear that the event was about drug abuse in New Hampshire.
Heroin has become a serious issue in the 2016 presidential race in part because talking about the epidemic is also a way to talk about something else—to show you’re attentive to what’s happening at the local level, to show you have empathy. For Cruz, riding high off the momentum of his big victory in Iowa, it’s a way to show that he can be just as Donald Trump as Donald Trump—but with a conscience.