On the campaign trail, Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio, likes to tell voters about his work as co-chair of the Congressional Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus and to attack pharmaceutical companies for profiting from "getting so many millions of Americans hooked on opiates." None of that stopped him from accepting money from a political action committee funded by an opioid distributor whose executives mocked addicts as "pillbillies," a Washington Free Beacon review of campaign finance documents found.
The $1,000 donation came from AmerisourceBergen PAC in November 2019. Emails revealed in 2021 during a lawsuit against the company for its alleged role in the opioid crisis showed AmerisourceBergen’s executives expressing broad contempt for poor whites suffering from addiction, which at the time was largely fueled by pharmaceuticals such as OxyContin.
In one exchange, a senior AmerisourceBergen executive circulated a parody song containing references to "hillbilly heroin," "a bevy of Pillbillies" and a reference to Kentucky as "OxyContinville." Another email shared between executives joked about how crackdowns against so-called pill mills—doctors who illegally prescribe opioids to customers—in Florida will lead to a "max [sic] exodus of Pillbillies heading north."
The donation could prove to be a political liability for Ryan, a Democrat running in a state that has been inordinately impacted by the opioid crisis. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that opioid distributors donated at least $27,000 to Ryan’s political campaigns since 2007.
At the same time, the AP found, Ryan voted against bills meant to increase funding for anti-opioid initiatives, such as spending packages for addiction treatment. In a statement to the AP, Ryan’s campaign said one of the donors, Cardinal, is a large employer in Ohio.
The Ryan campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Ohio recorded more than 5,200 overdose deaths in 2020. That figure was largely attributable to the rise in the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which state data show was involved in 81 percent of overdose deaths in 2020.
Ryan's Republican opponent J.D. Vance rose to prominence for his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which gave an inside look at the drug crisis in Appalachia. Vance has cited the experience of writing the book as an inspiration for seeking political office.
On the campaign trail, Vance's message often focuses on his time growing up in Ohio as the son of a mother who battled addiction. In response, Ryan has attacked Vance's dormant nonprofit Our Ohio Renewal, which focused on helping solve Ohio's opioid crisis.
Although Ryan has called Our Ohio Renewal "a charade" created to "further [Vance’s] political ambitions," former employees told the Free Beacon they were proud of what the organization accomplished in a short period of time. Among those accomplishments, former staff say, is the "Kinship Care Research Project," which posited that state governments should focus on providing the children of addicts with stable homes.
Ohio Republican governor Mike DeWine signed an executive order expanding financial benefits to kinship caregivers—extended family members who are legal guardians of children with absent parents—in December 2020. The following year, the Ohio state government implemented a service that allows social workers to help pair foster children with extended family members.
The Washington Free Beacon in September reported on another donor-related headache for Ryan. Last month, Ryan jetted to Los Angeles to attend a fundraiser cohosted by a high-powered litigator who previously worked to minimize financial damages available for young victims sexually abused by former U.S. Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.