WASHINGTON, D.C. — As if it’s not enough for the liberals who helped Barack Obama to the Democratic nomination and then the presidency that he chose a Wall Street figure to run the Treasury, kept President Bush’s secretary of Defense and picked Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted to authorize the Iraq War, for secretary of State. Now he’s rumored to be considering Minnesota’s own Rep. Jim Ramstad to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy — the “drug czar.”
Ramstad, the Republican retiring this year after nearly two decades in the House, is a social moderate whose very public battle with alcoholism makes him a natural choice for Obama to reach across the aisle.
So what’s the problem?
More than 40 health-care and drug-normalization groups are sending a letter to the Obama transition team today that cites Ramstad’s opposition to needle exchange programs as evidence that he could continue the Bush administration focus on the “war on drugs” instead of harm reduction and fair sentencing.
The letter singles out three votes, in 1998, 1999 and 2007, in Ramstad’s 18-year House career. (Votes on needle exchange are a frequent ritual in the House, and Ramstad took similar votes twice more in 1998, as well as in 1992, 1997 and 2000.) Skeptics also cite five votes against medical marijuana.
While it’s hard to extrapolate a comprehensive policy from a few votes, the groups don’t want to take any chances.
“It’s quite possible that Rep. Ramstad would support Obama’s position of repealing the federal syringe ban, but it’s also equally possible that he would lobby against it, publicly or privately,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which spearheaded the letter.
The drug czar post would require Senate confirmation, but Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy with whom Ramstad teamed up this year to enact a law requiring parity in insurance coverage for mental health conditions, are lobbying for him. And lawmakers of both parties have offered nary a peep of opposition to any of Obama’s picks, all of whom face daunting agendas and high expectations for success.
Ramstad’s office did not immediately respond to requests for reaction to the letter or his interest in the job.
Adam Graham-Silverman covers foreign policy and economics for Congressional Quarterly and is one of MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondents. He can be reached at agrahamsilverman [at] minnpost [dot] com.