A mysterious cavity

SO WHO SPENT big money trying to influence the outcome of our state government races in this past week's election? Well, the usual suspects, of course: Weyerhaeuser, U S West, the trucking industry, developers, public employees' unions, the dentists.

The dentists? Yes, by gum. Those mild-mannered individuals with their face masks, scrapers, and drills appear to have a polished political agenda. According to the Public Disclosure Commission in Olympia, the dentists' trade association was among the top 10 contributors (after the political parties themselves) to state House campaigns this year.

The dentists contributed some $80,000 to their favored lawmakers over the course of the election—more than Boeing, more than the Teamsters, more than the Muckleshoots or the NRA. The dentists spent another $45,000 or so on "independent" campaign efforts for their chosen candidates, such as postcards and brochures that were sent out last week.

All of which raises questions: What do the dentists want exactly? Why are they attempting to spread their influence? Could it be they're still smarting from their 1994 loss on Initiative 607, which allowed people other than dentists to make dentures? Or do they have another agenda that has slipped past the notice of a sedated public?

For answers, we turned to David Hemion, who runs the dentists' political action committee (or PAC). "We haven't set a real agenda yet," he told me. He came up with just two issues that were of immediate concern to the dentists: promoting a statewide mandate requiring urban water systems to use fluoride (which prevents tooth decay), and increasing dentists' reimbursement rates from the Medicaid program. Right now, rates are so low, Hemion says, that the few dentists who take Medicaid patients "do it as a charitable contribution." Anything else? "Those are some of the big ones for us," replied Hemion.

CANDIDATES WHO received attention from the dentists are certainly grateful for the support but, at least in some cases, at a loss to explain it.

Republican Luke Esser, a freshman state representative from the Eastside, says a postcard supporting his reelection bid arrived—courtesy of the dentists—in his mailbox last week. "It was a welcome surprise." The dentists spent $4,349 on Esser postcards, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Such independent expenditures, which are not limited by law, have to be made without the knowledge or cooperation of the candidate.

Esser could recall being involved in only one bill during his two years at the State House that directly affected the dentists: legislation (supported by dentists) requiring them to take continuing education courses. "Since I'm an attorney, I'm subject to [a similar requirement], so I was happy to co-sponsor the bill." Other than that, Esser, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, says, "I don't remember dealing with much in the way of dentistry in the past two years. They do talk about fluoridation. But you don't run into many antifluoride folks in my district."

Hemion's group also sent $5,043 worth of postcards on behalf of veteran Democrat Mary Margaret Haugen, a senator from the San Juan Islands known mostly for her work on growth issues and transportation. Hemion couldn't give any explanation about why the dentists were in her camp. "We have two lobbyists who make recommendations and a PAC committee that makes these decisions," he said.

Other choices for the dentists' largesse were more easily understood. Representatives Shay Schual-Berke and Cheryl Pflug are vice chairs of the House health care committee and helped write a Patients' Bill of Rights law that, at the dentists' request, did not address oral care. "We heard no complaints and so saw no reason to regulate them," says Schual-Berke. Both pols were the beneficiaries of postcard mailings.

Certainly, the dentists helped to brighten the tenor of the 2000 campaign. As Esser observes, independent expenditures are usually used for last-minute attack ads. But the dentists' mailings were entirely upbeat. "Good Government Requires Good People" was the slogan that accompanied Representative Pflug's photo.

A footnote: At press time, it was not yet known whether the dentists had managed to install one of their own, Republican dentist Don Davidson, as the state's Insurance Commissioner.

 
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