Friday, December 15, 2017
Politics

Anti-fluoride vote turns some Pinellas dentists into political activists

The billboard that Palm Harbor dentist Oscar Menendez is planning to put up outside his office on U.S. 19 is as subtle as a root canal.

On a background that, in a design mock-up, gleams like an exceptionally white set of teeth, it asks in bold red letters: "WANT FLUORIDE? GOOD LEADERSHIP?"

The ad will exhort passing motorists to elect the two Democratic challengers for the Pinellas County Commission, Janet Long and Charlie Justice, who support fluoridation. If all goes according to Menendez's plan, the billboard will go up on Oct. 1, a day before mail ballots are sent to thousands of the county's voters.

Unlike Realtors, firefighters and police officers, dentists have historically not been an organized group that carried much political heft in Pinellas County. But the commission's 4-3 vote last year to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water has converted some of them to political activism. With about six weeks until the Nov. 6 election, they are trying to persuade their patients, friends and neighbors to donate to and vote for the pro-fluoride candidates.

"I just feel so strongly about the fluoridation issue," said Menendez, president of the Upper Pinellas County Dental Association. "It's been a horrendous injustice done to a tremendous amount of the public."

A Republican, Menendez has donated to campaigns in the past. But compared to his involvement this year, he was dabbling.

The same is true for Dr. Johnny Johnson, a pediatric dentist in Palm Harbor who described his previous political involvement as "zero." Now he is making his own pro-fluoride brochures to hand to patients, lecturing them about the commission's vote, and emailing them. (Most are receptive, he said, but two sent back nasty replies.)

Closer to the election, he plans to use his office's appointment confirmation system to robocall all his patients, urging them to vote for Long and Justice.

The commission's vote "is a personal affront to health care providers," he said.

In some cases, that vote has led to an uncomfortable intersection of patients and politics. Commissioner Neil Brickfield, one of four on the board who voted to stop adding fluoride, sends his children to Johnson for dental care.

On Wednesday night, while Brickfield and Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who also opposed fluoride, held a joint fundraiser at Bay Pines Sports Bar, Johnson introduced Long and Justice to a roomful of dentists at a country club in East Lake.

Long and Justice have been courting the dentist vote. At the suggestion of some dentists, Long recently ordered about 50 decals — a large blue molar with white letters reading "Pro Fluoride!" — that she and volunteers are attaching to her bigger road signs. And both candidates mention the mineral repeatedly in their campaign speeches.

Long said she has never seen dentists get as involved in a campaign before.

"Countywide, they are really rallying," she said.

But the latest campaign filings show that Pinellas dentists' financial contributions have not significantly tipped the scales in Long and Justice's favor. In the last month, Long's campaign has pulled in just over $20,000, of which $1,050 came from people who identified themselves as working in dentistry. The traditional sources of donations — political parties, business owners, trade groups — still dominate.

Current numbers were not available for Justice's campaign, but he said he has raised about $10,000 in the past month, leaving his campaign with a little more than half the budget of his opponent, Bostock.

Straining to raise enough money to get out his message, Justice urged the dentists to get involved in his campaign by donating and putting his signs in front of their offices.

"If you're not mad, then something's wrong," he told them at the country club gathering. "Because they have insulted you."

Some dentists, like Dr. Stephen Komara, who has a practice in Dunedin, needed no convincing. Fluoride will "absolutely" determine how he votes in the commission races, he said.

"I'm an independent; I vote for the candidate. But on this, I'm voting for the issue," he said.

Standing next to Komara, Dr. Patrick Lepeak said there is no question that he supports fluoride, but there were other things on his mind — the nation's debt, for one, and what he called "a lack of openness."

He was surprised by the commission's vote, especially because he knows Brickfield through the Rotary Club and they are friends.

"I kind of expected him to get to know the facts better," he said. But come Nov. 6, fluoride will "probably not" be the issue that determines his vote.

Brickfield and Bostock have not given fluoride a place in their campaigns. Asked a question containing the word "fluoride," they typically argue that people are getting enough fluoride through their diets, a claim many dentists dispute.

Most voters are not thinking about fluoride, they contend.

When Menendez talks to his patients, he hears the opposite, he said. Many of them grew up in cities up North where fluoride was added to the water. When they retired here and learned it was voted out, they were in disbelief.

"I think the majority of my patients are pretty outraged," he said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected]

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