Matt Kerner

The people’s candidate: Kerner brings expertise, common sense, concrete ideas to the table

This sponsored story was paid for by the Committee to Elect Matt Kerner.

BUCKHANNON – He might be a political newcomer.

But should Democratic candidate Matt Kerner be elected to represent the House of Delegates’ 45th district, he’s willing to wager he’d bring the most personal and professional experience to the table about the biggest political issuing plaguing the Mountain State – addiction.

“I’m not denying that there are other people in the Legislature in recovery, but as far as having both the professional and personal experience in the world of addiction, I would have the most experience in the legislature.” Kerner said.

Meet the candidate
Kerner – who will square off with Republican Carl “Robbie” Martin for a seat in the state Legislature in the Nov. 6 General Election – was born in Erie, Pa. but has lived in Buckhannon since late 1984. As an infantryman in the U.S. Army who served his country for six years, Kerner is a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights.

He has considerable experience as a superintendent in the construction industry but has been the executive director of Opportunity House, Inc. since June 2009.

Kerner actually landed in the Opportunity House as a resident in 2006, but by 2007, he had been promoted to housing coordinator and in 2009, he headed up the entire operation. Kerner, who has been in recovery for nearly 13 years, now oversees three residences for men in recovery and a recovery center. Taken together, the four facilities comprise the nonprofit organization Opportunity House, Inc.

Utilizing a holistic approach focused on the mind, body and spirit, the Opportunity House endeavors to provide a safe, supportive environment in which people can recover from addiction; it also provides recovery coaching services to individuals in Upshur, Lewis, Braxton, Barbour and Randolph counties.

The addiction crisis
In fact, the way addiction services were handled – or in his opinion, sometimes mishandled – at the state and federal level is what drove a man who’d never considered running for political office to throw his name in the hat.

“From years of being involved in the addiction field, I had seen a lot of mismanagement and basically, just corruption,” Kerner said. That’s in addition to the misunderstanding of addiction that sparked the failed “war on drugs” that’s led to what he refers to as “the mess of mass incarceration” West Virginia and the United States are currently facing.

“So all these things have kind of weighed on my mind for a long time, and finally the straw that broke the camel’s back was I was writing a grant application and looking through the requirements,” Kerner said.

What Kerner saw was that the $20 million the state of West Virginia won in a lawsuit against Cardinal Health was being pumped right back into the pockets of large pharmaceutical companies.

“As I was filling out this application, I realized that all of these new drug treatment facilities that are funded by that $20 million are going to have to accept medically assisted treatment – they’re going to have to use suboxone or methadone or one of those drugs,” Kerner recalled.

Medically assisted treatment means another pharmacological drug is used, usually in concert with counseling or other forms of treatment, to wean a person off the primary drug they’re addicted to.

Although Kerner says MAT can be a “valid pathway” to recovery for some people, it’s often misused, abused or diverted to dealers who sell it on the street.

“All the facilities that are funded by that $20 million are going to have to accept medically assisted treatment,” Kerner said, “so we took $20 million from Big Pharma and we’re going to give it right back to them by buying new drugs to counteract the effects of the last drugs that they sold us.”

Matt Kerner

His nuanced understanding of the complex issue of addiction is one reason Kerner says voting for him is Upshur County residents’ best bet.

“The first medically assisted treatment drug was heroin, and it was used to get Civil War soldiers off morphine, so we’ve basically been going through this cycle of new drugs to combat other drugs since the 1800s,” Kerner said. “I think that’s why we are referring to what we are seeing now as an opiate crisis when it’s really an addiction crisis because if we say we have a methamphetamine crisis, there’s no drugs to wean people off of that” – and hence, large pharmaceutical companies miss out on the chance to cash in on the epidemic.

In fact, Kerner thinks it’s more accurate to refer to “the opioid crisis” as an addiction crisis.

As he puts it, “It’s an addiction crisis because the addiction underlies the problem, no matter what the chemical is.”

Kerner is seeing the pendulum swing away from opiates and back toward methamphetamine being the most prevalent drug of abuse in our community and across the state.

“Methamphetamine is not going to lead to the spectacular instant death that opiates do, but it’s going to lead to longer-lasting, deeper impacts on families and children, it’s going to lead to more property crime,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of what’s driving addiction, and most of the time that’s hopelessness and/or trauma.”

As a potential legislator, what would Kerner actually do about the addiction crisis?

In addition to advocating for initiatives that seek to eradicate the stigma surrounding addiction – “healing happens more often in communities than it does in isolation,” he says – he believes the Legislature should invest, invest, invest.

Investing in prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery is smart purely from a fiscal standpoint, Kerner believes.

“We need to start realizing that expenditures in those areas deliver a return on those investments,” he said. “They are not a cost; they’re an investment.”

Kerner says the state would be looking at a 7 to 1 return on that investment.

“It’s largely accepted that these investments work,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who has done the research – whether it’s been conservative think-tanks or liberal think-tanks or university studies – everything shows that we’re looking at about a 7 to 1 return on investment.

“For every dollar we spend in those areas, it provides society a $7 return,” he explained. “Opportunity House has already saved Upshur and other counties over $1 million in county jail fees. Another program we used to run allowed us to treat entire families in one place for less than the cost of placing one child in out-of-state foster care. In three years, we pulled 15 kids out of foster care and returned them to healthy families, which then received recovery services in one place, saving money and getting better results. That program unfortunately was defunded when HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) changed the way they wanted to deal with people who were both addicted and homeless.”

Kerner is troubled that emotions – rather than evidence-based studies – are driving public policy around addiction.

“Right now, fear, anger, unsupported opinions and the continued stigmatization of addiction that is driven by the false moral narrative that people with substance abuse problems are irredeemable evil people shapes public policy,” Kerner said. “That needs to be changed. We need to allow evidence to drive public policy, and we need to support long-term recovery solutions as well as increasing capacity across the whole continuum.”

Commonsense, not costly education initiatives
However, addiction isn’t Kerner’s only platform; he thinks he could help improve education outcomes with some commonsense, concrete ideas that won’t cost the cash-strapped state any more money.

“I think the path for prosperity for West Virginia has to go through education,” he said.

One method he believes would bolster learning outcomes is changing the school calendar to a more modern one that would involve more frequent breaks instead of one months-long hiatus in the summertime.

Matt Kerner
Matt Kerner, Candidate for W.Va. House of Delegates

“There’s all kinds of studies that show that improves performance, and it improves it disproportionately in favor of poor kids,” Kerner said. “What the research has shown is that poor kids will learn just as well during the school year as other middle-class and upper-class kids, but they fall back farther in the summertime.”

That pattern can typically be attributed to the reality that families with fewer resources tend to have less time and money to engage their children in out-of-school educational activities.

“They’re not taking their kids to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. They’re not going to D.C. and spending the weekend going through Smithsonian Museum and learning,” Kerner said. “It’s not necessarily that they don’t value education, but they might not have the time or resources that middle- or upper-class families do.

“Changing the calendar would change outcomes,” he added. “It’s a way to improve performance without increasing costs.”

In addition, Kerner doesn’t think students should be allowed to drop out of high school unless they have some intellectual or physical disability that prevents them from graduating.

“Why are we even allowing kids to drop out only to handicap themselves and become a burden to everyone else? I’m currently registered as a Democrat, but I have some very conservative views on things,” he said. “I have no trouble supporting someone who has an intellectual disability or literally can’t complete school for some reason, but when you make an informed decision just to be uneducated, why should everybody else have to pay for that through public assistance programs?”

“While I believe that we are charged to take care of each other, I also believe that we all should be pulling our own weight,” he added.

Environmental issues and the economy
Kerner sees environmental protection and the health of the economy as increasingly intertwined and would describe himself as a realist about the extraction industry. But make no mistake: he’s all for putting laws in place that protect the Earth and public health.

“We’re going to see natural gas pipelines. We’re going to see more fracking, but I think those companies need to be forced to operate morally, ethically, responsibly, because I’ve seen the ecological devastation, and the violation of property rights that’s occurred in other parts of the state like Ritchie and Doddridge counties because of those activities,” Kerner said.

“Now, I’m not somebody who’s going to chain myself to a bulldozer to stop somebody from running a pipeline, but I think that there are valid issues that we need to be aware of,” he said. “We’re getting ready to cross the Buckhannon River with a pipeline that’s going to be immediately upstream from our only public water source.”

Kerner added that there’s a difference between “being a friend of coal and being a friend of coal miners” and said the Legislature needs to work to ensure natural gas companies don’t simply take what they need and leave the local environment and economy devastated the way the coal industry did.

“We don’t want to continue to be an extraction colony,” he said. “Across the world, places that are rich in natural resources are always left with poor people, and that’s been the story in West Virginia. Every train load of coal that left West Virginia made West Virginia poorer because they took away our resources and threw some crumbs our way to keep us from complaining.”

“While some well-paying jobs were created, all too often companies damaged the environment, bankrupted themselves and pulled out of the state, leaving us nothing to show for it and a mess to clean up,” Kerner added. “Even the miners who sacrificed their safety and their health to power America’s economic engine were often left without promised pensions and healthcare because coal operators were allowed to risk money that should have been set aside for miners to develop new operations that were bankrupted. They paid their executives huge bonuses as they shut down operations and left the state, leaving those who did the hard work empty-handed.”

Matt Kerner

Kerner doesn’t see West Virginians’ struggle with the coal industry as a right or left issue.

“Now, that’s not a Democratic issue, that’s not a Republican issue – that’s a corrupt politician verses the people issue, and that’s what we’ve been faced with for 150 years,” he said. “We need to look at how that happened in the coal industry to make sure that doesn’t happen with other extraction industries.”

A different kind of candidate
Kerner’s management experience; ability to see the “big picture” or intersectionality between multiple issues; and long history of public service in the addiction field, on coalitions working to end homelessness and on boards created to increase literacy all qualify him as a standout candidate.

But what really sets him aside is his lived experience.

He’s worked a low-wage job; he knows what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.

“I think one of the things that makes me different as a candidate is that I’ve had that experience of living in poverty, working for minimum wage – working hard for minimum wage,” Kerner said.

He remembers waking up with his hands practically cramped up into claws after a night of throwing lumber.

“I know what it’s like to go home and realize the transmission in my truck just went dead, and if I can’t change my transmission by tomorrow, no matter what the weather’s like, I’m not going to get to work and I’m going to lose my job and things are going to get even worse,” he said.

And he’s well aware many people in Upshur County are stuck working for employers who pay low wages.

“Then, we shame, guilt, and degrade those folks when they need help with medical care, help with food, help with housing instead of looking at the employer, really, who we’re subsidizing, instead of the employee,” Kerner said. “That needs to change.”

Early voting begins Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Upshur County Courthouse and runs through Saturday, Nov. 3.

This sponsored story was paid for by the Committee to Elect Matt Kerner.

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