Opinion: What happened after his drug addiction was revealed

Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse/Jim Galloway, jgalloway@ajc.com
Jeff Breedlove, chief of communications for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse/Jim Galloway, jgalloway@ajc.com

Arrogance is a much-abused drug in many fields of expertise. Neurosurgery is the first that comes to mind. Piloting an airliner is another.

Then there is the world of politics.

Early this week, at the side entrance to the state Capitol, I ran into someone who – by all the odds Las Vegas has to offer — ought not to have been there.

Four years ago, Jeff Breedlove was a fire-breathing, crime-busting, cop-supporting, church-going Republican strategist, the veteran of a dozen campaigns. He was then serving as chief of staff to Nancy Jester, a DeKalb County commissioner. The position was something of a come-down, but it was a steady paycheck with health insurance.

Then came Oct. 24, 2016, when DeKalb police found Breedlove in a room at the A2B Budget Hotel in a downtrodden area of the county, at the end of a three-day binge. In the company of a drug dealer who hadn’t been paid.

People tend to disappear after things like that. And Breedlove did. But now it was Monday, and here he was at the Capitol — and with a lobbyist’s badge, too. He is now chief of communications and policy for the nonprofit Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Two days later, we were on the fourth floor, sitting on an oak pew that – appropriately enough — had likely been filched from some church a few decades ago. And Breedlove was testifying to my voice recorder.

“My active addiction started when I was 20 years old,” Breedlove began. He’s now 52.

Breedlove described his addiction as a play in three acts. Act I ate up most of the ‘90s. “You didn’t have all the smart technology. I would sneak away and I would use a little bit of product. And it would last for a little bit. I’d be satisfied, and go days and weeks. That lasted until 1998, when I was at the Georgia GOP and lost my first job to this,” he said.

Product? “Crack cocaine. That’s all I’ve ever done. I don’t drink. I don’t do anything else,” Breedlove said.

I had forgotten that. Breedlove, needless to say, is white. In the 1990s, the stereotypical crack user was not. Federal sentencing disparities for possession of crack cocaine versus the powdered version would linger until 2010, penalizing African-Americans disproportionately. I asked him to explain.

It was, in an odd way, a style choice. “A lot of professional guys like me, with these Type A, arrogant personalities – we need the best, the strongest. The most out-there thing there is,” Breedlove said. “If that’s the one that people say is the worst, then that’s the one I’m going to do, because it must be the best.”

The political life can be a nomadic one. And compartmentalized, too. Both traits can benefit someone with a substance abuse problem.

“Nineteen ninety-eight was the first time anybody found out, including my wife,” Breedlove said. “That led us to a series of jobs across the nation, where I was still getting hired.

“You have to understand something. I had run the top-targeted congressional campaigns in ’96, ’98 and 2000. And won all three,” he said. Bob Barr in Georgia, J.D. Hayworth in Arizona, and Denny Rehberg in Montana.

“And people weren’t talking. I would get a job, lose a job. Get a job, lose a job,” Breedlove said.

Ultimately, it was time to come home. Breedlove called a Democratic friend, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, and asked for a job. He became a policy analyst in the state Senate research office. This was Act II. “I didn’t use for six years, seven years. We thought I was cured,” Breedlove said.

And then Act III began, as did the binges. He stole quarters from his son’s bank. Friends – people of note in the Capitol — pushed him to get help. Then came October 2016.

“I’m chief of staff for Nancy Jester. I’m hosting, at the same time, a delegation from the American Council of Young Political Leaders from four countries for the U.S. State Department,” Breedlove said. “On a Friday morning, I left an event with Nancy at a library in DeKalb. I was supposed to go meet those delegates at Georgia Tech.”

He didn’t. The next Monday found him in that hotel room with a ticked-off drug dealer. Breedlove phoned a friend, claiming he was being held against his will. The friend had phoned the cops.

He made the usual noises that a cornered political figure in handcuffs might make, which the cops ignored, but we cannot pretend that a county commissioner’s top aide was treated with the callousness that a typical suspect in a drug bust might receive. Ultimately, Breedlove was charged with a felony – making a false report to police. Three days in jail and a family intervention followed.

Breedlove was delivered unto the MARR Men’s Recovery Center in Doraville for a mandatory 90-day recovery session. “I was blessed my family could afford a place like that,” he said. His father died of a heart attack during his stay. Breedlove was allowed out to deliver the eulogy.

He found religion again. “I was always a church-goer. Always had the Bible for my boss, always had the Bible quote for my boss,” Breedlove said. But this time it was deeper.

And then, back in 2020, the alarm on Breedlove’s cell phone went off. We recessed while the lobbyist went before a House committee to speak in favor of a state easement for a proposed treatment center for first-responders in Augusta.

That done, we returned to Breedlove’s story and slightly more comfortable seats.

The felony was converted to two misdemeanors. He’ll complete the required two years of probation in August or thereabouts. But employment for those recovering from addiction is hard – even for the well-connected.

“I’m in a treatment facility and I don’t have anonymity. I’m not Robert Downey Jr., who’s world famous, but I do live on Google. And that’s serious,” Breedlove said.

But he had his support network. A friendship with Jester has continued. His marriage has survived. A conversation with Attorney General Chris Carr led to an interview with Neil Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse. And a return to world of employment.

It’s important to note that Breedlove’s addiction predates the current opioid epidemic. What struck me is number of prominent people who, by his account, knew about the addiction – and simply sent him on his way.

“They thought they were trying to help me. That was well-intentioned love, but it’s not helping somebody who needs help. The DeKalb County police officers that arrested me – they saved my life,” Breedlove said.

I asked him if his experience has altered his political philosophy. “When I was younger, in my 20s and 30s, I was just a true-believing, red-meat conservative who toed the party line. I was hypocritical on my own issues. That’s reality,” Breedlove said.

More specifically: While he was addicted to crack cocaine in the 1990s, Breedlove urged his boss, U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a former federal prosecutor to support tougher anti-drug legislation that would put more crack users in prison. Users who didn’t look like him.

“This has humbled me. It’s changed me. It’s made me realized that addiction, or substance abuse disorder — it’s a disease,” he said. “It’s a bipartisan disease. It cuts across every single demographic that people in politics understand.”

Breedlove is now far more open to government involvement in finding a solution to what he considers an addiction epidemic. In the next week or so, his boss will be testifying in support of Senate Bill 311, a measure authored by state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta.

The bill would require more state oversight of addiction recovery centers that aren’t always as nice as the one that helped him. “We want to make sure if the federal government sends money to the state, and the state sends it to the county, we have at least as many people inspecting homes where these people are as we have inspecting restaurants,” Breedlove said.

He had one more point to make before I turned the voice recorder off. “I needed to get treatment. I needed to get well. I needed to come back into this building,” Breedlove said. “It’s the proudest thing professionally that I’ve ever done in my life.”

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