John Nygren’s War on Drug Abuse
His daughter’s drug abuse problem brought the issue home to him.
It’s the phone call, or the knock on your door, that every parent most dreads, with the horrible message: Your child is abusing drugs. Your child overdosed. Your child has been arrested for possession of drugs, or possession with intent to sell.
It’s different when you hear that and you’re one of the state’s 132 legislators, expected to vote wisely, without fear or favor, on changes in the lives of Wisconsin’s 5.7 million residents. Legislators also work in the state’s most public arena, the Capitol.
“Early on, you just don’t talk about it,” Nygren said last week. “You can act like it’s not real. But it’s real.”
Next came all those “what if I had just” questions and second-guessing your parenting skills, complicated in Nygren’s case by his divorce from Cassie’s mom. And then there are those brutally honest family meetings on what happens next.
Nygren had to confront Cassie’s addiction midway in his 11-year tenure in the Assembly. His choice: How much of your personal life, and parenting pain, do you share with your neighbors, the 57,000 residents of the 89th Assembly district, and the world?
Nygren said his family (wife Maggie and their two kids) and a senior member of his Capitol staff urged him to go public and not run from the questions. Instead, he was advised, do all you can to fight drug abuse and addiction, warn parents, work with law enforcement and use your office to update state laws.
Nygren agreed. He’s steered several Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) bills into law, winning praise for his courage from fellow legislators, cops, treatment specialists, addicts and Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Nygren has traveled the state warning about drug abuse and addiction: “Once an addict, always an addict.” And: “You can kind of connect the dots and see how they go from legal prescriptions to junkie.”
He’s often asked how Cassie is doing. He protects her privacy but, “I still lose sleep over what decisions she may be making.” She looks forward to the day when she’s no longer referred to as the “state representative’s daughter,” he adds.
Nygren did all this as co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC), now deadlocked with Senate Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker over how to pay for 2017-19 highway construction.
“When you’ve been to hell and back, it’s easier to take a position on a budget issue and fight for it,” he says.
Others say Nygreen’s high-profile fight against opioid abuse and addiction has saved lives, but he won’t go that far. “I do believe that what we’ve done has made a difference,”
Leaders of both parties agree. “John Nygren has been able to develop his personal story into changes in the law, and he has made the state better for it,” says veteran Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos asked Nygren, who has a background in insurance and finance, to join JFC when Republicans took control of the Assembly in 2011. Vos calls Nygren “articulate, bright, passionate, pragmatic” and the perfect “citizen legislator.”
“I give John credit, because it’s never easy to talk about something as deeply personal as your kids,” Vos says, adding: “John bravely came out and said, ‘I want to talk about this because I have a personal experience.’ John was at the forefront of looking at this epidemic not as a crime problem, which it is, but as a human tragedy.”
The 53-year-old Nygren didn’t run for the open Eighth District seat in the U.S. House last year. He refuses to predict his political future. “I’m not a chess player…I don’t see 10 steps in front of me.”
So far, Nygren says his two other children, now ages 19 and 16, have weathered the family’s personal and public storms. “They may not be the ‘cool kids’. But we’ll take them.”
Still, Nygren adds, “I wish I didn’t have a story to tell.”