For more than a year, Melissa Crews has been the public face of HOPE for New Hampshire Recovery, a non-profit that supports people struggling with drug addiction.
She’s authored op-eds, sat for newspaper and television interviews and appeared side-by-side with elected officials to lobby for more money for substance-abuse treatment.
Last week, she took on another role: mouthpiece for a Republican political group that blames Gov. Maggie Hassan for hundreds of drug-related overdose deaths.
In a 30-second TV ad paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Crews, a member of HOPE’s board of directors, says Hassan “mishandled” the opioid crisis, adding that the governor’s decision to veto a Republican-crafted budget last year was “all about the politics.”
“The cost of the entrenchment and bureaucracy is 429 people dying a year,” she says. “That’s the cost.”
The ad is the latest from Republicans hoping to derail Hassan’s Senate campaign against the incumbent Kelly Ayotte.
An ad by One Nation, a political nonprofit, said the budget veto delayed treatment funding in the midst of the state’s growing heroin problem. That ad drew widespread criticism, and even Ayotte asked One Nation to stop running the spot. The group refused.
But Crews’ turn as partisan critic is unusual, even in an election year when the state’s drug crisis is being increasingly politicized. And it apparently caught her colleagues on HOPE’s board of directors by surprise.
Board member Bob Kelley said while Crews’ affiliation with HOPE is not mentioned in the ad, “everybody who is at all familiar with her would make that connection immediately.”
“Frankly, I’m horrified by it,” Kelley said. “To blame someone for x number of deaths – that’s preposterous. I’ve worked in the substance-abuse field for 40 years, and it’s madness to say something like that.”
Maureen Beauregard, who was elected chair of HOPE’s board in June, said Crews’ participation in the ad generated concerns in drug-treatment and recovery circles. But, she said, no one has accused HOPE itself of taking sides, which would violate federal law barring the nonprofit from engaging in political activity.
“I can tell you, as chair of the board, we remain nonpartisan,” Beauregard said. “We don’t support any one candidate, and what a person does on his or her own time is what they do on their own time.”
The co-owner of two Manchester restaurants, Crews chaired HOPE’s board in 2015, when the organization opened the state’s first peer-recovery community center in Manchester. Since then, HOPE has opened centers in Concord, Derry, Claremont, Newport and Berlin.
Crews is in long-term recovery for substance abuse, which has made her an effective advocate for the cause. And she’s by no means a political newcomer: Since 2010, she has made $34,000 in political contributions, including $5,400 to Hassan’s 2014 reelection campaign.
But this year, Crews and her husband, Andy Crews, president and CEO of AutoFair Automotive Group, are backing Ayotte. Melissa Crews gave the incumbent $5,400, the maximum allowed, in March - around the time Andy Crews hosted a $2,000-per-person fundraiser for Ayotte in Bedford.
Andy Crews is also chair of a group of business leaders raising money for Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas’ campaign for governor. Gatsas’ proposal to fight the crisis as governor includes an expansion of peer-recovery centers like HOPE for New Hampshire Recovery, which recently broke ground for a new headquarters in Manchester.
Meanwhile, it’s not immediately clear what motivated Melissa Crews to film an ad that was almost certain to anger parts of New Hampshire’s small, but passionate recovery community.
State funding for peer recovery was non-existent until 2015, when, according to Guidestar, HOPE received $39,000 through the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services. And the Republican-crafted budget Hassan vetoed had $3.3 million less for substance-abuse treatment and prevention than the governor’s proposal. Hassan’s budget also funded Medicaid expansion - opposed by Republican lawmakers - which advocates applauded as the most important tool available to fight the opioid crisis.
HOPE is also in line for a piece of the $500,000 for peer recovery that’s available as part of a $5 million package of treatment and recovery spending signed by Hassan in June.
Crews did not respond to numerous voicemail messages and emails requesting comment for this story, and few treatment advocates would speak on the record about Crews or the NRSC ad.
Kelley said Crews often complained about state rules and regulations that she perceived as hampering HOPE’s good works.
“I’ve never questioned Melissa’s intentions at all,” Kelley said. “But I have seen her take positions that have placed her and HOPE in adversarial relationships with state agencies, where it makes no sense to be adversarial.”
Kelley said his first reaction to the ad was to resign immediately from HOPE’s board. But he’s decided to wait until the board meets in early September, when he plans to raise his concerns.
He’s also hoping for some answers from Crews.