BINGHAMTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - Voters in this struggling Rust Belt region in upstate New York, backed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, hoping he could help turn back a relentless tide of factory and business closures.
But the starkest symptom of decline there - an opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of hundreds in and around the city of Binghamton - rages on, and voters are demanding that candidates for public office address the loss of life.
This year’s hard-fought contest for New York’s 22nd Congressional District, which includes Binghamton, has drawn national attention as a possible race in which Democrats could flip a Republican seat in their battle to retake the House of Representatives. The two leading candidates, Democrat Anthony Brindisi and Republican incumbent Claudia Tenney, have both focused on the opioid crisis during the campaign, revealing sharp differences in how the two political parties view the issue.
Those differences are reflected in swing races across the country in places hit hard by opioid abuse, including in Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. While candidates in both parties support a range of solutions, Democrats generally tend to emphasize health care and treatment, while Republicans advocate stricter enforcement and reducing the availability of illicit drugs.
In the New York race, Democrat Brindisi says he would promote better access to treatment for addicts. He has accused his Republican opponent, Tenney, of making things worse by voting to weaken the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which provides government funding for the health coverage many addicts rely on.
“This should be a nonpartisan issue, but I have to question the reasoning behind voting for health care bills that will make it easier for insurance carriers to discriminate against drug treatment programs,” he told Reuters.
Tenney has co-sponsored bills - which she points out are bipartisan - that would strengthen punishments for sellers of Fentanyl and study whether the government-funded Medicare program encourages over-prescribing of opioids.
“We’ve expanded Medicaid under the ACA for years and yet the problem is getting more acute,” she said. “There are a lot of ways that we are tackling this that are real solutions instead of throwing a lot of money at it.”
Voters, too, often look at the issue through a partisan lens.
John Adams, a 50-year-old speech and language therapist in Binghamton, says opioids are “absolutely” a top issue for him, which has him leaning toward Tenney. He says he does not buy Brindisi’s argument for more spending.
“Do you give the money to cancer patients or to addicts?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s like, when do you tell your kids the Easter Bunny isn’t real?”
Alexis Pleus thinks neither party has done enough to solve the crisis, but says Democrats are right to push for more funding and for health insurance reform.
For her, the issue is personal. Her son, a restaurant chef, cycled in and out of jail and rehab before dying of an overdose in 2014. The last time he tried to get clean, Pleus said, he called her in tears to say his health insurance wouldn’t pay for a full course of treatment, and he would be turned out after 14 days.
“The system without a doubt failed him. He wasn’t refusing help, he was begging for help,” Pleus said.
Democratic strategists believe the opioid issue can help them win votes. They point out that Republican candidate Rick Saccone, who lost a special election for a Pennsylvania House seat in March, drew flack during the campaign for dismissing the role of the federal government in solving the crisis. The victor in that race, Democrat Conor Lamb, made opioid abuse a central theme of his campaign, calling for investment in prevention and expanded access to treatment.
Some Republican campaign strategists say they see the issue as not strongly benefiting either party.
“It’s very unlikely that either side will really accrue any significant advantage over the other,” from the opioid crisis, said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster working on several mid-term races. “For Democrats, the problem is that this issue exploded on their watch, with Obama as president. That would serve to undercut any advantage they might try to leverage on the issue.”
The opioid crisis in Binghamton has been propelled by continuing economic decline. The area used to have an array of large employers, including IBM and General Electric, but both companies, along with others, have relocated many of the jobs that used to be in the area.
On the streets of Binghamton, only steps from a sign marking the location where the flight simulator was invented, signs of the epidemic abound. Discarded syringes litter the ground and users nod off after injecting heroin.
Emergency medical personnel in the area say they answer as many as a dozen opiate-related calls a day. In the county where Binghamton is located 66 people died from overdoses in 2017, according to the district attorney.
One resident, 71-year-old retiree Marie Hein, said the opioid issue may swing her vote this fall. She voted for Tenney and Trump in 2016 and believes the president is doing a good job overall, but she says the government needs to do more to combat the opioid epidemic. Now, she is considering voting for Brindisi, in part because he supports more funding to combat the epidemic.
She said she sees how addiction has affected many of her neighbors, including former members of the military. “Especially for the veterans when they come home, those are the ones who need to be supported,” she said.
Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Kieran Murray and Sue Horton