"In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us," Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, said during his State of the State address.
Shumlin grabbed attention and inspired hope last week when he dedicated his entire State of the State speech to opiate addiction. Advocates cheered the focus. Critics wanted more specifics. But political analysts say the uncommon approach was a win-win.
"I think politically it's brilliant," said Mike Smith, a Republican political analyst.
Smith served in key jobs during Gov. Jim Douglas' administration.
"When you see the devastating impact of what drugs can do, as I saw as secretary of Human Services, you have to be moved," Smith said.
He says the focus on addiction not only could help Vermonters who need it, he says it gave the governor a chance to show he's compassionate, that he's leading the conversation on an uncomfortable topic. And it also creates a distraction for the public, the media and lawmakers.
"So when you're addressing issues you can't get hit on other issues that aren't working well, like the Vermont Health Connect," Smith said.
"There is a political benefit to changing the subject," said Paul Heintz, a political columnist for Seven Days.
Heintz wrote about the speech's distraction effect in his Seven Days column. The former staffer for Congressman Peter Welch says Health Connect poses a political problem for the governor this session.
"If you change the subject to a different problem they might focus their attention and energies on that issue," Heintz said.
But it's not just Vermont lawmakers and reporters struck by the speech. The State of the State has been making national news for a week as outlets zero in on the stark contrast between Vermont's wholesome image and what the governor calls a heroin crisis.
"I think it's a great story nationally and that is good for the governor," Heintz said. "Governor Shumlin maintains that he doesn't have any grand national ambitions, but I think he enjoys being part of the national discussion. We've seen that at the Democratic Governors Association, and I think this is another way he can rise to a higher level on the national stage."
Smith says all the national attention carries risk. Bringing up a dark topic could erode Vermont's reputation. And finding a solution to opiate addiction is not easy.
"Double-edged sword," Smith said. "Now he has to deliver, he has to have his department heads deliver, have his secretaries deliver on what he's committed to."
We reached out and asked the governor's office about any political motivation for his speech, but did not get an answer to the question by the time this story was published. The governor is quoted in The New York Times Thursday saying what he "really wanted was to have a conversation with Vermont."
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