LACONIA — Philip Spagnuolo Jr., who served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives for a little over nine months last year, is planning a route back to the state Legislature, this time as a senator.
Substance misuse is the defining issue for Spagnuolo, who owns two local sober houses and is open about his previous struggles with drugs and alcohol. He says he’ll try to unseat Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, next year.
French represents Senate District 7, which takes in Andover, Belmont, Boscawen, Canterbury, Franklin, Gilford, Northfield, Salisbury, Webster and Laconia.
Spagnuolo, a Democrat, defeated Republican Les Cartier by 127 votes in a special House election on Feb. 27, 2018, earning the right to represent Belknap County District 3 until he was defeated in the last general election on Nov. 6.
This is a district where Republicans have an 11 percent registration advantage and where President Donald Trump won by 13 points and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won by 10 points.
Spagnuolo, 51, is the son of an Italian immigrant who came to this country at age 17 and has worked in construction all his life. Spagnuolo’s mother worked at a local day care center for 30 years, and lives in the Meredith Center Road home where he grew up.
He has two sisters, one an attorney in Philadelphia and the other a Gilford resident who owns a hair salon in Wolfeboro. He has a 27-year-old daughter and a 3½-year-old son.
Spagnuolo moved with his family to Laconia after finishing sixth grade in Wakefield, Massachusetts.
He went to Laconia schools, played a lot of hockey and spent a year at Bishop Brady High School in Concord before going to Southern New Hampshire University, where he played hockey before getting into trouble with alcohol.
“I couldn’t play hockey any more,” he recalled. “I got kicked out of school. Lost my scholarship. So I was like, ‘Forget this, I’m going somewhere warm.
“I was already into drinking pretty heavily and doing some drugs at that time. It didn’t mix with academics or athletics.”
He ended up in Miami, Florida, worked in the restaurant business for a dozen years while struggling with substance misuse. He moved back to Laconia and ran a restaurant and tavern for a few years, before it was no longer financially viable.
About four years ago, he committed to recovery. Previous attempts did not work, but this time it stuck.
He also discovered there was a group of people meeting informally to discuss the creation of access to care for people with substance-misuse problems. That grew into establishment of Navigating Recovery in Laconia, and Spagnuolo was a founding member. He became a recovery coach, helping others with drug and alcohol dependency problems, while continuing to work on his own.
Despite a growing awareness of the problem of opioid misuse in New Hampshire, Spagnuolo said the system for helping people with substance misuse is broken.
“We just don’t take this seriously,” he said. “This is the biggest health crisis that our country has ever seen, even compared to the AIDS epidemic, which wasn’t taken seriously until the Ryan White Act was enacted in Congress to deal with that situation.”
The public learned about AIDS and how it could affect anybody after Ryan White was diagnosed at age 13 following a blood transfusion. He led a public fight against AIDS-related discrimination.
“The same thing happened with Oxycontin and the heroin crisis,” Spagnuolo said. “It was an inner-city problem, it was a black problem, until it came into middle America and white, rich kids were dying.”
He said New Hampshire ranks No. 49 nationally in the availability of drug treatment, despite having among the worst problems nationally with per capita fatal drug overdoses.
Meanwhile, French, an auctioneer and a real estate broker, lists as his legislative priorities “finding a school funding solution” and “solving the insurance problem.”
He said another of his priorities is ensuring that the city of Franklin receives adequate support for a major waterpark project.
French said the state has already invested heavily in drug recovery efforts.
“I know we’ve had a lot of success, but at the end of the day it comes down to personal responsibility,” he said. “You could double the expenditure, but if people don’t take personal responsibility over their own lives, you could spend a billion dollars and not change it.
“We’ve given them the avenues they can use to get to the destination we hope they want to be at.”
“That’s where the buck stops. We don’t supply drugs. We don’t put it in their hands. We spend a fortune trying to prevent it from happening, but people have to say enough is enough,” French said.