BERRYVILLE — Combating the opioid crisis that’s claiming thousands of lives across the country is one of the top priorities of Gene Rossi, a Democratic candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor.
He discussed the crisis during a meet-and-greet event on Sunday afternoon at 612 Vineyard in Clarke County, where he interacted with about 30 local residents about his candidacy.
The election is Nov. 7. A primary to select the Democratic candidate is June 13. The other Democrats vying for their party’s nomination are Justin Fairfax and Susan Platt.
Born in 1956, Rossi describes himself as a lifelong Democrat. He worked as a federal prosecutor for 27 years.
“I was fighting for those who could not speak for themselves,” he said. “Victims alive and dead. The ignored, the afraid, the forgotten. And one of the issues that I focused on during my almost three decades with the [U.S. Department of Justice] was the opioid crisis, which is now an epidemic declared by the health officials in Virginia. In 2016, a thousand Virginians died from opioids.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015. While many elected officials are currently attempting to address this crisis, Rossi said he has been fighting this battle for years.
“In 2002, I was a canary in a coal mine. I was one of the few federal prosecutors to focus on what now is an epidemic because I saw it coming,” Rossi said. “... The epidemic was touching all parts of the state even in 2002. And over the last 15 years I led the largest investigation in U.S. history to address the opioid crisis. It was called Operation Cotton Candy.”
Rossi was the lead counsel in two criminal trials involving chronic pain doctor William Hurwitz, who prescribed 1,200 oxycodone pills daily to one patient. Hurwitz was convicted for his actions. Rossi said Hurwitz “crossed the line from being a healer to a dealer.”
As lieutenant governor, Rossi said he would provide prevention, enforcement and treatment regarding opioids and drug misuse. Prevention would involve educating the public that pain pills are drugs that, if not used properly, could result in addiction and possibly death.
“Enforcement is for those who truly, truly sell pills for just money and malicious motives, those individuals should pay the price,” Rossi said. “I have no sympathy for them.”
He said he would go after any corporation that promotes and peddles pain pills to get more customers. He described addiction as a disease and said that mass incarceration is not the cure for people struggling with it.
“For those who are caught in that web of addiction, I want to show fairness and compassion and provide them with mental health treatment and addiction counseling to help them get over this disease,” Rossi said.
Health care and public education are other priorities to Rossi. He said he wants fight for the preservation of “the good parts” of the Affordable Care Act and modify where needed. He particularly wants to keep the component that provides health insurance to people who have a pre-existing condition, as well as the part of the legislation that allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are age 26.
Both Rossi and his daughter are survivors of cancer. His daughter had lymphoma when she was 18 years old.
“Gene is a dedicated leader,” said Michael Faison, president of the Young Democrats of Clarke, Frederick and Winchester.
Mary Daniel, a member of the Clarke County Board of Supervisors, said Rossi has the ability to relate to people and has “an excellent background to be lieutenant governor.”
“He knows how to get things done,” Daniel said, adding, “What you see is what you get. He’s not the polished, artificial politician.”