Calling it a “modern twist on the classic political duel,” the Connecticut Post reported on Monday that Bridgeport City Councilman Ernest Newton and Board of Education member Maria Pereira had both handed over plastic cups of urine and passed their respective tests.
As it turns out, they’re not the first ones to go through the humiliating ritual. Both front-runners in Ukraine’s presidential election submitted to live-streamed drug tests earlier this month, and the state of Georgia once made screenings mandatory for candidates running for state office. Some elected officials apparently think the practice should be even more widespread: In September, one Republican lawmaker introduced a proposal to randomly drug test all members of Congress.
In Bridgeport, the showdown took place voluntarily after Newton and Pereira, both Democrats, began sniping at each other over a news item about budget figures that had been posted to Only In Bridgeport, a widely read site dedicated to discussing the city’s often-colorful politics.
“Please remember to take your meds,” Newton, the city councilman, wrote to Pereira on April 13.
Pereira, the school board member, hit back. “Ernie, I promise I will continue to take any and all prescribed medicine,” she replied. “In turn, please ensure you take anything you need that may have to be swallowed, snorted, inhaled, or injected.”
The remark had to sting, given that Newton, whose political career was interrupted by a five-year prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, once struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. In 1997, while serving in the Connecticut General Assembly, he surprised his fellow legislators by confessing that he had gone to rehab to kick the habit that had dogged him for four years while he maintained a dual life as a political power broker and member of the state’s House of Representatives. Since then, he has been an advocate for programs that would help former offenders get back on their feet.
“Stop taking drugs,” Pereira wrote to him later that night, digging the knife even deeper. “It is killing the few remaining brain cells you have left.”
Two days later, Newton returned the venomous personal attacks, claiming Pereira had been placed in a psychiatric ward for overdosing on medication. Dismissing those claims as “wild accusations you will never be able to substantiate,” Pereira issued a challenge.
“I’ll tell you what, Ernie,” she wrote. “I will gladly pay for both you and I to take a drug test with the understanding the results, whatever they may be, will be released to [Only in Bridgeport].”
“Name the time and place,” Newton replied.
After making some phone calls, Pereira posted the address of a walk-in lab testing facility. Her payment information was on file, she wrote, and the technicians would be watching both of them urinate.
“I am asking that we take the test by 5:00 PM tomorrow so that it narrows any opportunity to take anything that would hinder the detection of substances in our urine,” she wrote. “Agreed?”
“How about doing it today,” Newton responded. “You got all the mouth. I’m going today so that you will see how big of an a------ you really are.”
That same afternoon, Newton showed up at the clinic in a burgundy suit and gamely provided what the industry refers to as a “specimen.” According to his lab report, which was subsequently published on Only in Bridgeport, he tested negative for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, opiates, oxycodone, PCP, barbiturates, benzodiazepine and methadone. He told the blog that he had been sober for 23 years, and had taken the test to prove a point.
“This is a Board of Education member challenging a black elected official,” he said. “She wouldn’t have challenged a white person. She’s no different than Donald Trump. I did this to show how crazy she is.”
The following day, Pereira went in for her own screening. On Friday, Only in Bridgeport published pictures of the results, showing that she, too, had tested negative for all 10 substances. But the feud didn’t die down.
On Monday, still arguing in the blog’s comments section, Newton questioned why his results had come back the same day but Pereira’s hadn’t and suggested again that she had an issue with prescription drugs. Pereira said that his accusations were empty and baseless and the test had proved it. Their back-and-forth continued in the same manner it had before, and to some commenters, it seemed clear the stunt had been an embarrassment for everyone involved.
“In fact,” one resident wrote to the politicians, “it made you two the butt of an infinite amount of jokes at the expense of the city your both claim to love.”
The bizarre spectacle, however, was not without precedent.
Earlier this month, rival candidates in Ukraine’s presidential election underwent drug and alcohol tests that were broadcast on television and live-streamed on Facebook. According to the Guardian, challenger Volodymyr Zelenskiy had made the tests one of his conditions for agreeing to a debate with incumbent Petro Poroshenko, suggesting both should have to prove that they were not addicts or alcoholics, even though there was no evidence to the contrary. “The country needs a healthy president,” he explained.
Both men privately handed over urine and follicle samples. Then, in a truly surreal scene, they were trailed by packs of reporters as they presented themselves to needle-wielding technicians at local clinics. “We are creating new traditions,” Poroshenko said as his blood was drawn.
The candidates both passed the test, and Zelenskiy, who had suggested it, won by a landslide on Sunday.
Some elected officials have tried to make drug tests the norm. In 1990, Georgia’s legislature passed a law requiring contenders for the governor’s office, legislature and other top positions to hand over their urine for examination, even though there was no evidence of a raging drug epidemic in state government. Anyone who refused or failed the test would not get a spot in the ballot.
According to the New York Times, Georgia’s original goal had been to require all state employees to get screened for narcotics, but that statute was quickly struck down in court as unconstitutional. In 1994, three members of the Libertarian Party who had reluctantly submitted to testing to run for elected office filed a lawsuit against the state, challenging the candidate drug tests. Their petition ultimately went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1997 that the law violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
But that hasn’t stopped other politicians from trying to revive the idea. In September, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) introduced a resolution that would mandate random drug testing for members of Congress and the Senate, saying it was only fair since blue-collar workers were often subjected to random screenings. Though the legislation went nowhere and was quickly dismissed as a stunt, Higgins insisted that wasn’t the case, and he genuinely believed that Congress should be “reflective of the people” and held to the same standards as other industries.
“Based upon some of the behavior I’ve seen, I’d be very interested to know what kind of illegal drugs are flowing through the veins of our elected officials in Washington, D.C.,” he said in a June video where he floated the idea, according to CBS News.