With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis

Why We Wrote This

Mayor Steve Williams has made Huntington, West Virginia, a model for tackling drug addiction. Part 2 in a summer series on people who are facing – and successfully navigating – America’s most intractable challenges.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Mayor Steve Williams (l.) of Huntington, West Virginia, led a pioneering effort to help his city cut its overdose rate by nearly half. A key part of his approach was establishing an Office of Drug Control Policy team, from right: head of the office and former police officer Jim Johnson, data guru Scott Lemley, and Fire Chief Jan Rader.

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“I’m not going to let you fail.” That was the lifeline a boss extended to Steve Williams when he was floundering as a rookie investment broker. Years later, Mayor Williams made the same promise to the city of Huntington, West Virginia, when it was hit hard by the national opioid crisis. With only modest funding at its disposal, the city of about 50,000 had to tap into deeper resources – humanity, community, and faith. 

As mayor, he spearheaded a pioneering approach that drew on everyone from the fire department to faith leaders and succeeded in stemming the tide of overdoses and deaths. He worked closely with drug czars from both the Obama and Trump administrations, and has made Huntington a model for other cities around the country.

He’s hopeful not only about his city’s progress, but the whole country’s trajectory – not because of what’s happening in Washington, but because of what’s happening in America. “I’m not placing my faith in who’s in office,” says Mayor Williams. “I’m placing my faith in the person I’m standing next to.”

Steve Williams of Huntington, West Virginia, may be the most successful mayor on the front lines of America’s opioid crisis. And he would tell you, it’s failure that helped him get there.

In the 1990s, he quit a 15-year career in public service after burning bridges as a state legislator and getting skunked in the Huntington mayoral race.

He went to work at a bank brokerage, but after a year he was the second-worst performer in the company and on the verge of getting fired. His manager came to him and said, “I’m not going to let you fail” – and then gave him a higher vision for his job.

“All of a sudden, the light turned on: I don’t need to sell anything to anybody. I just need to help them,” says Mayor Williams. Help them plan for their children’s college tuition. Help them navigate their retirement. The next year, he was one of the top 30 brokers in the country for his company.

So when he became mayor in 2013, and the opioid crisis hit, he knew the power of reaching out to people in despair – of taking them by the hand and telling them, “I’m not going to let go.”

It was a bleak picture. West Virginia had the highest overdose rate in the country, and Huntington was hit hard. People were calling his office saying they didn’t feel safe letting their children play in the yard anymore.

At one of the first public hearings he attended, people were talking about the need for intervention, prevention, treatment, and law enforcement, while emphasizing that there was no silver bullet. The mayor piped up. “I don’t know about any of you,” he remembers saying, “but I know, for me, I’ve experienced the power of prayer – and I haven’t heard one person mention the power of prayer.”

Faith leaders responded, coordinating a time for their congregations across the city to pray that those struggling with addiction would be delivered, that those dealing drugs would leave crime behind, and that law enforcement authorities would be protected in their fight against opioid abuse. A short video Mayor Williams made garnered 1 million views in just a few weeks, prompting emails of support from as far away as Germany and India.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Firefighters with Huntington Fire Department's Station 4 hang out on an April evening in 2017, shortly before the station's sirens went off after someone called 911 about a suspected drug overdose. At the time, the fire department was getting an average of 10 overdose calls per day in the city of about 50,000.

But overdoses continued to rise.

“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that throughout this time, there was some doubt and discouragement,” says Mayor Williams. “There’s a patient prayerfulness that I’ve learned to hold on to,” he adds. “That small quiet voice that’s telling me what I need to do.”

He facilitated collaboration across sectors in Huntington, from researchers at the local university to data gurus in the police department. Those partnerships led to increased trust – and hope. In December 2017, the city began sending small teams of people to visit each person who had overdosed, a day or two after the sirens had quieted, to express compassion and offer help and resources. The initiative has been credited with helping to cut the overdose rate in half within its first six months. The trend line continues to be positive, with 2019 rates below those of 2018.

“What Steve is doing is bringing passion to this,” says Jim Carroll, head of the Trump administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. “He has a strong faith; he is committed to his town. ... And that’s what I’m trying to replicate – people like Steve, with his passion.”

The first person Mr. Carroll contacted after being confirmed by the Senate last year, apart from his relatives, was Mayor Williams – despite the fact that they come from different political parties. Indeed, the West Virginia mayor is now a go-to source not only for fellow mayors but also national authorities, and even international dignitaries. He is one of only four mayors on the National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic. The U.S. surgeon general, the British ambassador, and both Mr. Carroll and his predecessor in the Obama administration, Mike Botticelli, have visited Huntington, seeking to learn from the city’s success. First Lady Melania Trump visited Huntington on Monday to highlight its work on the opioid crisis, and met with the mayor, as well as West Virginia’s senators and governor and acting Department of Homeland Security chief Kevin McAleenan, who was also in town.

“What we’re able to show is yes, it can be replicated,” says Mayor Williams, who tells those overseeing larger metro areas that Huntington’s strategies can be scaled up. “The difference between your city and mine is zeroes.”

Still, the challenge is sobering. Even if Big Pharma stopped selling opioid pills today, and drug dealers never distributed another gram of heroin, Mayor Williams estimates it would still take three or four decades to deal with the effects of the current crisis.

He takes heart from an observation of Adm. James Stockdale, an American prisoner of war in Vietnam, recorded in the book “Good to Great.” The POWs who survived tended not to be those who thought they’d be released soon, but those who faced the brutal facts of the situation and nevertheless maintained a faith that they would prevail in the end.

“Where I’m optimistic is in our DNA here in this nation. ... We never give up,” he says. “And I think that’s the strength of America.”

That is true, he adds, regardless of who controls Washington.

“I’m not placing my faith in who’s in office,” says Mayor Williams. “I’m placing my faith in the person I’m standing next to, and we will identify ways to continue to move forward.”

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Overcoming despair: How a wounded Green Beret came back stronger
Part 2: With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis
Part 3: Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans
Part 4: Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee
Part 5: Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution.
Part 6: How one African American mom tackles racism head-on
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