Republican Congressman Dave Brat drew censure from his Democratic opponent after he seemed to equate the endurance of negative campaign ads to the challenges faced by a recovering opioid addict.
“You think you’re having a hard time--I've got $5 million worth of negative ads coming at me,” he told Chesterfield County Jail inmate Paris Mines on Wednesday.
Democrat Abigail Spanberger called her opponent’s remarks “highly disappointing and indicative of his lack of empathy,” echoing criticism from the Virginia Democrats and other left-leaning commentators.
She also said Brat’s votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would have dealt a blow to recovery efforts had they been successful.
In response to requests for comment, Brat’s campaign referred to a press release in which Brat described talking with recovering drug users as “one of the most moving experiences I have in this job.”
“As a Christian, we love the least of these--we visit those in prison,” he said.
Brat got support from Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard, who said he was upset that the event "has now ended up being nothing more than just a politcal football."
As the audio of his visit spread, Brat celebrated an endorsement from President Donald Trump on Thursday. Trump called the Randolph–Macon economics professor “one of the hardest working, and smartest, people in Washington.”
Congressman @DaveBratVA7th is one of the hardest working, and smartest, people in Washington. He is strong on the Border, Crime, the Military, our Vets and the 2nd Amendment. He is a powerful vote for MAGA and loves the Great State of Virginia. Dave has my Total Endorsement!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2018
Wednesday was Brat's second visit with inmates in Sheriff Leonard's Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP). In the early part of his meeting with several dozen inmates, Mines told Brat about the challenges she would face after she was released, including securing stable housing.
Brat responded by turning attention to the 7th District Congressional race, currently rated a toss-up by many pundits.
“How do you think I’m feeling?” he said about the ads. “Nothing’s easy. For anybody.”
Brat later acknowledged he was talking about a different magnitude of problem. “You've got it harder,” he said. “I’m not dismissing that.”
University of Mary Washington politics professor Stephen Farnsworth said Brat may pay a political price for the exchange just weeks out from the election.
"It makes Brat look like an entitled Washington elitist--exactly what he accused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of being back in the 2014 primary."
But in an interview Thursday, the 28 year-old Mines said she was heartened by Brat’s response.
“It was like a sense of relief, like I’m not alone,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “Somebody this important, this big, is got the same things going on, like being overwhelmed. It made me feel like at ease.”
That reaction differed sharply from that of Kim Myers, a HARP employee who oversees the female support groups and who spoke at Wednesday's meeting.
“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 said. “Personally, I felt attacked.”
Alexandria Goldstein, a 23-year-old inmate who also spoke at the meeting, agreed that the attack ad reference was misguided.
“I think [Brat] had good intentions,” she said. “But the struggles I've had to deal with throughout my life don't compare to slander or to what people may say about me to the public.”
All three women cautioned against politicizing the event.
“I don't think it should be used against him by any means because at the end of the day he came here to find a solution,” Goldstein said. “He came here to hear us and find out what he can do in his position to help us.”
Ryan Hampton, a prominent opioid recovery advocate and self-described ‘liberal Democrat’ who says he worked in the Clinton White House, also defended Brat.
“The story is that he’s there and he’s paying attention,” he said. “His actions--not his words--his actions actually support our cause.”
Hampton, who has worked closely with the recovery group, pointed to Brat’s two visits to the jail as well as his sponsorship of a bill that would allow community organizations to take advantage of substance abuse grants.
But he said Brat wasn’t completely off the hook.
“Should he have said what he said? 100 percent no.”