At a listening session with inmates recovering from substance abuse this week, Rep. Dave Brat pivoted the conversation to his own re-election race.
“You think you’re having a hard time — I’ve got $5 million worth of negative ads coming at me,” the Virginia Republican said. “How do you think I’m feeling? Nothing’s easy. For anybody.”
“You think I’m a congressman, ‘Oh, life’s easy, this guy’s off having steaks every day.’” he went on. “Baloney. I’ve got a daughter, she’s got to deal with that crap on TV every day.”
“So it’s tough,” Brat continued. “No one out there’s got some easy life. Right?”
The gaffe comes as Republicans across the country look to cast their action on opioid addiction as a key legislative achievement before the midterms. Brat’s opponent, Democrat Abigail Spanberger, called his remarks “an affront to every person in recovery and the Virginians who die daily due to their addiction.”
Spanberger also pointed to Brat’s vote for the American Health Care Act, which would have hampered states’ ability to respond to public health crises like the opioid epidemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Brat’s star rose after his surprise upset of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, but he faces a tough re-election challenge this cycle: Inside with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.
The inmates Brat stressed how poverty and a punitive criminal justice system are obstacles to recovery, according to a report by WCVE, a public radio station in Virginia. One woman shared that she’s entered into 90-day inpatient substance abuse treatment programs without knowing where she’ll live after those 90 days are over.
It's worth noting Brat later acknowledged the inmate was up against steeper problems. Here's a longer cut for more context. pic.twitter.com/80hTiZWAua— Ben Paviour (@BPaves) October 18, 2018
But Brat appeared to emphasize personal responsibility in his response, according to an audio recording, encouraging inmates to “find a substitute for drugs, be it exercise, or academics, or reading books, going to the Bible, you gotta find something.”
Brat acknowledged that facing attack ads in pursuit of public office is not as difficult as coping with substance abuse: “You got it harder, I’m not dismissing that,” he’s heard saying later.
Still, critics say Brat’s comments show he doesn’t understand how serious the opioid crisis is. A record 1,227 people died from opioid overdoses in Virginia last year, the fifth straight year of record fatalities, according to a Virginia Department of Health report.
Kim Myers, an employee of the prison’s recovery program, said she felt “attacked” by Brat’s comments.
“How could you compare yourself to someone who’s going to get out and not be able to get a job, and not be able to get housing, and has to pay all these fines and restitutions for being in jail?” she told the radio station.
But not everybody at the listening session felt that way.
Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard, who introduced the prison recovery program, posted on Facebook that he regrets the low-key visit became political fodder.
“A sitting Congressman, who was trying to make a difference in the lives of those struggling with addiction by learning more about it directly from those dealing with the disease, is now being portrayed in such a negative and distorted way,” Leonard said. “The real losers here will be the people struggling with addiction inside our jail and across this Nation, now who become an afterthought and a forgotten part of the story.”
Brat has dealt with the fallout by touting President Donald Trump’s recent endorsement — he referred to the congressman as “strong on crime” — and and by invoking scripture.
“As a Christian, we love the least of these — we visit those in prison,” he said in a statement.
Watch: Brat Echoes GOP's Nancy Pelosi Attack Line in Virginia Debate