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Inspired water fight sends message

Outspent Portland fluoride opponents rallied a movement


Now we know why fluoride backers pressed so hard to avoid a public vote.

Anti-fluoridation forces — who raised far less money, had fewer seasoned campaign professionals and lost a one-sided battle for newspaper and other endorsements — easily overturned the Portland City Council’s decision to fluoridate the city’s Bull Run water supply Tuesday.

With most ballots counted on Wednesday morning, the Measure 26-151 referendum garnered only 55,527 votes in favor of fluoridation, or 39.5 percent, with 85,210 voters opposed, or 60.6 percent.

It was the fourth time that Portlanders have rejected fluoridation, which also went down to defeat in 1956, 1962 and 1978.

Advocates led by Upstream Public Health assembled a broad coalition of health-oriented businesses and professional associations, labor and groups representing people of color. Their message: fluoridating the water supply is a cheap, safe and effective way to prevent dental decay among children, especially for low-income families and children of color who can’t afford dentists.

Some might think those messages would resonate with liberal Portland voters.

But it appears that voters’ environmental, alternative health and libertarian sensibilities prevailed, keeping Portland the nation’s lone large city without fluoridated water.

“At a very fundamental level, people understand that we don’t want more chemicals in our water,” said Kim Kaminski, leader of Clean Water Portland, at an election-night campaign party for fluoride opponents.

“We had a challenge in explaining the science and addressing the concerns of the other side,” said Alejandro Queral, program officer of the Northwest Health Foundation. The foundation provided substantial support for the campaign, including an initial grant to Upstream Public Health to launch its effort.

It was hard for fluoridation supporters to overcome the “distortions and the fear-mongering” spread by fluoride opponents, Queral said.

The rest of the nation is scratching its head, wondering what all the fuss was about here, he said. “Frankly, this vote suggests we are very much living in the 20th century.”

But Queral acknowledged that opponents gained momentum from the way the Portland City Council handled the issue last year. Upstream, then-City Commissioner Randy Leonard and political consultant Mark Wiener worked behind the scenes to secure majority support from the five-person City Council before the public realized the issue was back on the table. Then the council imposed a tight signature-gathering deadline, in hopes that critics couldn’t mobilize in time to qualify a referendum and force a public vote.

But the City Council’s actions energized the opposition.

“In 30 days, we put together an operation to gather 43,000 signatures,” said Rick North, a member of Clean Water Portland’s steering committee. “It identified a lot of supporters. It gave us confidence. It brought us together as a team.”

Fluoride supporters’ subsequent “back-door” efforts to delay release of a new state survey on dental health also maddened the public, Kaminski said. The survey, which showed local improvements in children’s dental health without fluoridated water, was a big factor, she said.

Voters really wanted a choice as to whether or not they should have to drink water treated with fluoride, Kaminski said. And she said newer research on fluoride raised questions in voters’ minds about how effective it is and negative impacts on people’s health and the environment.

James Moore, a Pacific University political science professor, doesn’t dispute the pattern of back-room dealings by supporters, but doubts it influenced the public.

“The anti-fluoride people had a really clear, simple message: no fluoride chemicals,” Moore said. “That made up for the fact that they were outspent, and it cut through the clutter.”

When voters were confronted with dueling scientific studies and experts, those canceled each other out, he said. “It basically factored science out of it.”

On this issue, Moore said, Portlanders flocked to the libertarian argument that government should stay out of it. He likened it to voter support for assisted suicide and Portlanders’ concerns about mandatory children’s immunizations.

Kaminski expressed hopes that her side’s victory would inspire fluoride opponents elsewhere around the country.

Queral said pro-fluoride forces created a potent coalition that will not give up. “I believe that this is not yet done, and the conversation is not yet over.”