Crime

Yes, Pam Roach is serious about attacking the opioid crisis, whether you believe it or not

Pam Roach sends message of help directly to those struggling with addiction

During the recent holidays, Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach created a public service commercial aimed at people struggling with addiction. It suited her cut-to-the chase instincts to aim a message where she wanted it to go. So far, 27 people
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During the recent holidays, Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach created a public service commercial aimed at people struggling with addiction. It suited her cut-to-the chase instincts to aim a message where she wanted it to go. So far, 27 people

For TV viewers kicking back over the holidays and watching college football, the public service ad came as a bit of a surprise.

Here was Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach, a former state senator known for conservative views and clashes with colleagues, urging people struggling with opioid and drug addiction to seek assistance — from her.

“More Americans die as a result of opioid abuse than from car accidents,” she said in the ad, and reeled off more ominous stats before closing with a plea.

“There is help,” Roach said at the end of the 30-second spot. “Call my office today for a list of resources in your area.”

For those familiar with Roach, the spectacle was a minor shock: Pam Roach, populist conservative, scourge of public employees, breaker of polite norms, offering aid and comfort to people suffering from addiction — wait, what?

For those familiar with Roach, the spectacle was a minor shock: Pam Roach, populist conservative, scourge of public employees, breaker of polite norms, offering aid and comfort to people suffering from addiction — wait, what?

A few puzzled political critics wrote to The News Tribune, wondering about the ad’s origins and costs, and whether Roach was serious.

Answers: Roach paid for the ad with her county council budget, a disbursement every member receives, though the wording of the ad (“paid for by Pam Roach, Pierce County Council”) left the point slightly unclear. The cost: roughly $20,300, according to public records.

As for seriousness, Roach says she meant every word. She’s seen addiction up close, in her own family, and mentions the point frequently in public meetings.

Her approach wasn’t wonky, but it worked. By her count, 27 people who saw the ad called her office and obtained referrals to various social-service outlets. Some were nonprofit outfits, some were private businesses. Another was a faith-based agency in Burien, outside the county. Three callers sought help from the latter agency, she said.

In the county or out, private or public, faith- or treatment-based, or a combination of both — it doesn’t matter to Roach. Send people to the help they need, she says.

“As a conservative, I’m gonna help somebody who can’t help themselves,” she said. “They are trapped in a lifelong situation. “I feel just fine with having taxpayer dollars spent helping people. I have no problem with that.”

As a conservative, I’m gonna help somebody who can’t help themselves. They are trapped in a lifelong situation. I feel just fine with having taxpayer dollars spent helping people. I have no problem with that.

Pam Roach

While she successfully lobbied council members last year to declare a countywide opioid crisis and send a note to Gov. Jay Inslee about the issue, she’s not the only council member to tackle the opioid crisis, and definitely not the first.

Councilman Derek Young has been grinding on the issue for more than a year. He formed an opioid task force last spring, gathering interested parties to discuss systemic solutions. Along with Tacoma City Councilman Conor McCarthy, Young convened an all-day opioid summit that drew local and federal officeholders to the University of Washington Tacoma last week.

Roach attended the event and listened to the speakers and discussions. She was pleasantly surprised when Young spoke, name-checked her in the audience, and credited her with raising community awareness of the opioid crisis.

“He was very kind,” she said. “He called me out and said it was my idea to write a letter to the governor and my idea to declare our county in an opioid crisis.”

The conciliatory moment marked a touch of detente. Early in her council term, Roach mistook Young for a county staffer. She has butted heads with other members and hectored county employees, prompting County Executive Bruce Dammeier to restrict staff communications with her.

The conciliatory moment marked a touch of detente. Early in her council term, Roach mistook Young for a county staffer. She has butted heads with other members and hectored county employees, prompting County Executive Bruce Dammeier to restrict staff communications with her.

In spite of the internal strife, Dammeier praised Roach’s efforts to raise awareness of the opioid crisis.

“I certainly appreciate and welcome all of the actions being taken to address the opioid epidemic,” he said in a brief statement Wednesday. “Councilwoman Roach’s proactive work is definitely a part of that effort.”

Roach’s TV ad caught the eye of a Pierce County father, a Graham-area resident who doesn’t want his name used. He’s 59, he goes by the nickname “Burd,” and he has three adult children snared in the toxic cycle of addiction to heroin and meth.

“This epidemic is affecting every single family I know of,” he said. “When I saw that ad, I took the number down and called that number.”

Burd already knew about some of the local programs available to people struggling with addiction. Roach’s office referred him to a treatment facility in Tacoma. He knew the place already and sent his son, who is now receiving counter-treatments to help his heroin addiction.

Burd already knew about some of the local programs available to people struggling with addiction. Roach’s office referred him to a treatment facility in Tacoma. He knew the name of the place already, but he sent his son, who is now receiving counter-treatments to help his heroin addiction.

He doesn’t live in Roach’s district and had no particular knowledge of her before he called the number. It didn’t matter.

“She’s the only one I know that’s actually reached out and put out a number saying get a hold of me,” he said. “It was a wonderful thing. I like that. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. This is such a big problem, not just for myself, but all my friends. It’s a door-to-door deal.”

Young, Roach’s fellow council member, is a cerebral type by temperament, analytical by nature. He prefers to get into the weeds on difficult issues, research the policy connections and gather the institutional threads that lead to long-term structural changes.

That’s the hoped-for outcome of his opioid task force, which will present an action plan before long, fueled by feedback from law enforcement agencies and addiction experts.

“Implementation will be the next step,” he said. “Some strategies involve procedures between law enforcement and courts.”

As for Roach-style public service ads, Young admits that’s not his style. Calling a council member’s office for addiction help wouldn’t be his first choice — he’d prefer more thoughtful targeting, backed by facts and expert advice, but he’s not knocking the effort.

As for Roach-style public service ads, Young admits that’s not his style. Calling a council member’s office for addiction help wouldn’t be his first choice — he’d prefer more thoughtful targeting, backed by facts and expert advice, but he’s not knocking the effort.

“I can’t fault anyone for that, because it is a crisis,” he said. “People are losing their lives and their ability to function. The spirit of it was in the right.”

By comparison, Roach is more of a policy slasher, impatient and fond of asking awkward questions. Faced with a choice between complexity or simplicity, she’ll choose the latter.

“I have my own way of doing things that I’ve done for years,” she said.

Her council phone number, posted in the TV ad, provides a plain example of her approach. It’s 253-798-2222. The last four numbers stand for the number of her council district.

It’s a small thing, but she fought a tiny internal battle last year to get the number changed after she took office. The old number was 798-6894. Too hard to remember, Roach contended — people needed something simpler.

“No one does forget it,” she said. “And that’s what we need for people on the street. They need a number that no one can forget.”

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