By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Two days after being elected as a state representative, Phil Spagnuolo Jr. says he’s “more surprised than most” that his Democratic campaign succeeded in a city that leans Republican.
On Tuesday, Spagnuolo defeated Republican Les Cartier in Belknap County District 3, 968-841, or 54-46 percent. 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 said yesterday that the inkling of an idea to run for elective office came to him 19 months ago, when he heard a Democratic National Convention speech by Boston’s mayor, who said:
“My name is Marty Walsh and I’m an alcoholic. On April 23, 1995, I hit rock bottom. I woke up with little memory of the night before and even less hope for the days to come.”
The speech helped reduce the stigma of substance misuse, a stigma that often stands in the way of people seeking help. It also showed what could be achieved by someone in recovery.
“I said to myself, ‘If that guy can do that on that stage, maybe I can do that,” Spagnuolo said. “Win or lose, I felt at least I could be an example to people in recovery.”
Son of an immigrant
Spagnuolo, 50, 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 26-year-old daughter and a 2½-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 for a year and then on to a community college in Miami, Florida.
He spent a dozen years in the restaurant business in Miami, even doing some culinary training in Italy. He got married and had a child before returning to Laconia about 10 years ago.
He opened the Towns End restaurant and tavern in Gilford, where the Lyons’ Den Restaurant and Tavern is now located. His business lasted the better part of three years, but ultimately proved not to be financially viable.
Through it all, most people did not realize Spagnuolo had a substance-misuse problem dating to when he was a teenager.
“I was always employed,” he said. “From all exterior appearances, there wasn’t a problem. Only those closest to me knew of my struggles for a long time.”
He had sought help before, and 2½ years ago he sought it again. This time it stuck.
“All I can say is I got to the point in life that I couldn’t go on,” he said. “My spirit had been broken. I had seen the sadness in the eyes of my family.”
He did not have insurance and got on expanded Medicaid, only to find recovery options were few.
“I was lucky because I was so determined,” he said. “I was not going to take no for an answer.”
He got help for himself and discovered there was a group of people meeting informally to discuss creating 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.
He has also opened two sober houses for men in transition. They are given a structured living environment where they learn skills to help them reintegrate into society after treatment.
Spagnuolo has been called a “one-trick pony” for his emphasis on the problems of drugs and alcohol, but he says the impact of these issues has “woven itself to every aspect of society.”
That impact includes poor job performance, rising costs for health care along with increased police and enforcement costs. Child abuse and the proliferation of children in foster care also have a connection to drug and alcohol use.
Definition of disease
“There’s no question that this is a disease,” Spagnuolo said. “There is a choice initially to experiment with that substance, but if people want to be honest with themselves, most people have experimented with one substance or another.”
Where young people might have tried a beer or a puff of marijuana in previous generations, now they have easy access to powerful and addictive prescription drugs.
“What people fail to recognize is that a huge percentage of people with drug addiction or alcoholism have mental illness or have experienced serious trauma,” he said. “We see it with veterans.
“Opioids are a whole different ball game. You can be prescribed opioids and end up with a problem.
“People say those with substance problems choose to be this way, but from a rational standpoint, can you say that people really choose to live in that misery? Who in their right mind would choose that? You’d have to be insane to live that way.”
He said some people regard those with drug dependency the way AIDS sufferers were once regarded before the stigma of that disease eased and better medical treatments became available.
New Hampshire, with nearly 500 overdose deaths a year, must fully address a problem that isn’t going away, Spagnuolo said.
“Unfortunately, in New Hampshire, help is limited,” he said. “We are way behind on this thing. If people were dying from anything else, people would be up in arms.
“There are many avenues to recovery and services that can be provided. Recovery centers are very inexpensive and effective. I just don’t see a lot of things happening in that arena when it comes to funding.”
Private citizens can do a lot on their own.
“Navigating Recovery didn’t come from town or state money. It was a bunch of concerned community members getting together and saying ‘Enough is enough, we have to find a way to do this,’ he said.
“Stand Up Laconia came from concerned parents who got people involved and said ‘Let’s start teaching kids positive role modeling.”
“It was grassroots community members saying ‘Let’s do something. If we sit and wait, people are going to continue to die.’
“Has the state helped, yes, but absolutely not enough. Has the federal government helped? Yes, but absolutely not enough.”
The Community Corrections Center’s program for people in recovery is a case in point.
“Money was spent to build those buildings. It has proven results in reducing the recidivism rate and creating savings, yet we want to fight over whether we want to give them enough money,” he said. “It’s madness. Madness.”
He wonders what it will be like the first time he walks into the New Hampshire House of Representatives as an elected official.
“I’m sure there will be stigma for me, but ignorance is our biggest enemy and education is our biggest friend. I can’t vote on an issue if I’m not educated on it.
“I hope to at least be able able to educate folks. I’m in recovery and this is what happens when we do things right.
“I really want to make a difference somehow. I speak from the heart.”