Longtime lobbyist seeks changes to public policies — and public attitudes — on substance abuse

GETTING POLITICAL Strategist advocates for ‘recovery’ awareness in Bartow

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Jeff Breedlove is no stranger to Bartow County. For years, he served as campaign manager for ex-congressman Bob Barr, whose District 7 once included a large swath of the local community.

Indeed, Breedlove could rightly be considered one of the top Republican strategists in Georgia. But over that timespan, he also harbored a deep, dark secret — for almost 30 years, he was a crack cocaine user.

The public facade came crashing down in 2016, when he was arrested after a drug bust in a Decatur motel. At the time, he was serving as chief of staff for DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester.

The incident more or less spelled the end of his political career. But clean for three years, Breedlove now finds himself as a lobbyist of a different sort, serving as the chief of communications and policy for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse (GCSA.) 

He spoke at a GCSA-sponsored event, titled “The Politics of Addiction and Recovery Advocacy Training,” at Heritage Baptist Church Tuesday evening.

“We need to organize ourselves like others have done so that we participate in our society the correct way,” he told the 60 person-plus audience. “Because the fact is, right now, we are not doing that.”

The goal of the presentation, he said, was “building a constituency of consequence” for the substance abuse recovery community. 

“It is our premise that the most important voice in the addiction/recovery universe is the voice of the recovery community,” he said. “And it must be at every table, and at every setting.”

While changing public policy is a central goal, he said changing public attitudes about substance dependency issues is just as important for GCSA.

“The most dangerous thing that ever confronted you was the stigma around my disease,” he said. “We’re taking one of the first steps to attack the real enemy in the room … when we ask Coca-Cola for a donation, or Chick-fil-A, or Scott’s Walk-Up Bar-B-Q, why should they give to the controversial cause when there’s 99 other causes that are not controversial?”

And altering public perceptions, he said, may not be an easy undertaking. Over his many years as an insider in Georgia politics, Breedlove said there’s undoubtedly a large proportion of the powers-that-be that are dead set against substance abuse treatment funding. 

“Why should my tax dollars go to those immoral people who make poor lifestyle choices?” Breedlove echoed a common sentiment. “Some of them are elected to office in our state. I recently had a pleasant conversation with one of them, and by pleasant, I mean ugly.” 

Even more dangerous, he said, are those who claim to be proponents of recovery efforts, yet only seek to profit off those with dependency issues.

The political battle might be a tough one, but Breedlove said there are plenty of historical examples of formerly controversial social causes garnering mainstream public support.

He noted that, just 50 years ago, cancer was considered a taboo social matter. Half a century later, the National Cancer Institute is appropriated $5.74 billion a year, with major businesses and brands like the National Football League promoting Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October. 

Breedlove cited the Human Rights Campaign as the epitome of a successful public policy movement.

“They are very large and very powerful, but they were not very large and powerful in 1982 and 1983,” he said. “The Human Rights Campaign took the time to build the relationships with the members of the boards of directors of the largest employers in the state of Georgia, they earned their trust, they earned their respect …  the Human Rights Campaign figured out how to talk to them in their language — that’s the respect, that’s the trust — and so they go ‘Heck, if I write a $250,000 check for a weekend I might sell more Coca-Colas,' or whoever.”

That’s a model Breedlove said he’d like to see the state’s substance abuse recovery community adopt.

“We need a coalition of everybody,” he said. “We’re a single-issue advocacy organization, and the only ‘R’ we care about is ‘recovery.’”

He said he advocates approaching the issue from the bottom level of government up, urging attendees to seek municipal-level changes before moving to state and federal aspirations.

“Once we get the support of the local, local stakeholders, it’s easier to get the support of the Barry Loudermilks and the Brian Kemps and the Donald Trumps,” he said. 

Breedlove estimates that roughly 800,000 Georgians are going through some form of substance use recovery. Meanwhile, 2018 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates more than 18 million American adults had at least one substance use disorder.

With numbers that large, Breedlove said he has no doubts that the recovery lobby could one day be a political powerhouse a’la the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood and the Chamber of Commerce.

“People equate to votes,” he said. “The greatest resource we have is people, because we have the most people impacted by our cause than any other cause going in Georgia today. We just have to get organized.”

Yet it’s not just elected officials he said the recovery lobby is targeting. A successful campaign, Breedlove added, also entails forging relationships with corporate partners.

“If we can prove to Coca-Cola that our constituency is that big, they’ll write us those kinds of checks,” he said. “It’s not just about politicians, it’s about the business community, too.”

Such lobbyists will always hold “the moral high ground” in meetings, he said, when it comes to the subject of substance abuse recovery.

“When I walk into a room to talk about funding for recovery and substance use disorder, that’s not a want, that’s a need,” he said. “We’ve got to have solutions — professional solutions, business solutions, solutions for schools, solutions for churches, solutions for legislation.”

Breedlove concluded the presentation by circling back to his former superior, Nancy Jester.

“She didn’t like ‘those people’ at all, pretty snotty about it,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to correct her. In fact, I lied to her and misled her and never, ever told her about my background when she hired me.”

But he reminded the audience that one’s biggest enemy today may turn into one of their greatest supporters tomorrow. 

“Nancy has since held a town hall meeting specifically on recovery, she showed up at the press conference for Georgia Recovers and she sponsored the Recovery Day resolution in DeKalb County,” he said. “Nancy would tell you she had no use for us. Now she would climb up the hill and take the first spear for us.”

As a truly nonpartisan issue, Breedlove said support for such recovery efforts has appeal across both sides of the aisle.

And with the ongoing opioid epidemic alone creating a $78.5 billion economic burden on the United States, per 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Breedlove contends that substance abuse remains an issue that — directly or indirectly — impacts just about every voter, regardless of their political affiliations. 

“Stakeholders are anybody who are affected by an issue or who can influence an issue,” he said. “Given the size of our disease and the size of our recovery community, everybody’s a stakeholder whether they know it or not, and our job is to teach them that.”

Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.