Note: this article was originally published on May 24, 2013 as the fifth installment of my six part series for Mismanaging Perception on the unsuccessful campaign to fluoridate Portland’s water supply.
If you worked on the ‘Healthy Kids Healthy Portland‘ campaign promoting fluoridation of Portland’s legendary Bull Run fresh water, you’re probably not having the best week. You’re probably thinking, “I don’t understand, HOW could we have lost by 21 percent with the campaign manager/consultant duo of Evyn Mitchell and Mark Wiener that crafted platinum chart-toppers like ‘Charlie Hales for Mayor‘?!”
You’ve probably lost a fair amount of sleep trying to figure out how in the hell a grassroots campaign with far less experience who struggled to raise $280K was able to take in three votes for every two of yours when HKHP raked in an estimated $1 million+ dollars in corporate and political cash. How could such an insurrection happen? Why didn’t the lobbyists at Upstream Public Health and the strategists at Winning Mark see this coming? How did the people get away with forcing a vote on fluoridation in the first place? It’s going to be okay. Take a deep breath. This will all make sense soon.
For anyone unfamiliar, the current fight over fluoridation went public when it was reported that the lobbying and public relations firm Upstream had been meeting with city hall in closed-door sessions that were tellingly left off the city’s calendar. Red flags were raised and alarms were sounded, but despite heated public hearings, mayor Sam Adams and the rest of the city commissioners voted unanimously in favor of adding fluorisisilic acid to public’s drinking water.
The argument put forth for this un-democratic action was that since most other US cities dose their water with this chemical, it’s high time Portland did the same, and we can’t trust the public to agree with us. In reality, few other developed nations outside the U.S. practice fluoridation. Almost all of Europe refrains from fluoridating its water. Last month, the nation of Israel joined Europe in yanking mandated fluoride over health and environmental concerns.
In response to city hall’s poor behavior, a coalition of concerned citizens shifted into high gear to bring about a referendum and let the people vote. Some 20,000 signatures needed collecting within just 30 days. The newly formed Clean Water Portland (CWP) and it’s volunteers blew that target away by turning in over 43,000 signatures a day before the deadline.
The citizen insurrection underway, Upstream, the NW Health Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, and several other interested parties launched ‘Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland’ (HKHP) which purported to be the authority on what they termed a “dental crisis” currently being suffered by Portland’s lower income families and communities of color. Their website listed dozens of “trusted” organizations consisting of national health industry institutions and several smaller community-based groups.
HKHP wasted no time blitzing the airwaves and Youtubes with saturated media citing figures showing Oregon has an untreated tooth decay rate of 40%. Yet they conveniently ignored that Portland’s rate is half that at 20%. What’s more, when compared to state by state figures, Portland ranked 15th best.
Still, with so many ‘health’ groups asserting their authority on the matter, it was difficult to counter the narrative that fluoridation was the only way to provide dental health to disadvantaged communities. Yet if the issue was better dental health, why had fluoride supporters like Kaiser previously fought against more equitable access to actual universal care? Why had institutions now preaching ‘dental equity’ moved to close free clinics that used to operate throughout our region?
The more one looked into it, the less this issue appeared to be about health care at all.
When Columbia Riverkeeps, Food & Water Watch, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club issued coordinated press releases opposing fluoridation citing concerns over adding toxic fluorosilicic acid to our drinking water, HKHP could no longer assert with any seriousness that citizens questioning their plan were simply conspiracy theorists.
After it was reported that HKHP had given away over $120,000.00 in “grant” money to groups representing ethnic minorities, it was clear they didn’t hold the amount of sway they’d hoped for. Shortly after, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s executive director and the local chapter of the NAACP both came out against fluoridation.
HKHP had a serious problem on its hands. They now had to face the fact that communities of color were speaking out against fluoridation.
When the first public polling released in May showed that fluoridation was supported by only 30% of African Americans and less than 10% of Latinos, critics wondered if Upstream or HKHP had even bothered to ask people of color what they wanted at all.
Meanwhile, Clean Water Portland was waging a quiet ground game unlike anything seen here in a generation, according to several longtime PDX activists. Building on the momentum from the referendum signature gathering, CWP did with volunteers what it lacked in funds. The few donations they had were spent on yard signs as soon as possible, so that friends and neighbors could have a visual reminder of solidarity in the face of large organizations claiming authority on fluoridation.
CWP chose calm blue tones for it’s apparel and media in smart contrast to HKHP’s blood red campaign materials. While red has been proven to convey a sense of superiority, many people on the Clean Water campaign remarked that it seemed to denote emergency and panic, hardly consistent with the kind of happy cartoon tooth images they were also presenting.
While HKHP made sure you couldn’t use Facebook or Youtube without viewing their repetitive ads, CWP was sending out dozens of foot soldiers every day, having face to face conversations, letting people know that outside the U.S. there is concern about the safety and ethics of mandating the ingestion of fluoride.
At a debate sponsored by the Multnomah County Democrats, CWP representative Rick North drove this point home, “We know fluoride can cause harm. Regardless of the PPM, once introduced into drinking water, we can no longer control the dose. If we cannot control the dose, we cannot control the harm.” His counterparts from HKHP could not refute this fact and appeared more and more frustrated as the evening wore on.
Still, Healthy Kids reminded the public ad nauseam that they’d secured endorsements from most newspapers in the city. The Oregonian, Willamettte Week, and the Portland Mercury used their pages to relentlessly mock those opposed to fluoridation as being on the fringe, hippies, stoners, Burners, anti-science, paranoid, selfish, racist, or just plain stupid.
CWP never took the bait, and neither did their supporters. The back-and-forth over fluoridation raged online for months, yet early on it became known within the activist community that HKHP was paying people to troll forums harassing anyone who didn’t support fluoridation. It seemed their strategy was to antagonize people into threatening them in order to paint the opposition as emotionally unstable. If this was their plan, it failed entirely.
More and more people being insulted by HKHP’s paid internet commenters got involved off-line. They organized events, they knocked on doors, they made countless phone calls. Many credited HKHP’s online media coordinator for being so hostile and demeaning as to motivate and mobilize far more people to join CWP than would have otherwise.
Despite HKHP having the local print press locked down, Clean Water Portland was doing positive outreach to local broadcast journalists. On air reporters seemed far more interested in actually listening to Portlanders concerned about the negative health and ecological effects of fluoridation. Far from the caricatures of tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists that HKHP tried to brand the opposition as being, these faces appearing on the news spoke intelligently and compassionately. They looked like normal people, they were mothers and fathers. They talked about issues of consent. They talked about what fluoride can do to people with diabetes. These citizens were not fear-mongering, they were expressing reasonable doubt and applying the precautionary principle.
In the final days of the campaign, polls were showing that fluoridation was losing favor. More reporters were attending Clean Water events than ever before. Nobody wants to report on a losing team.
Then a bomb fell on HKHP. KATU reported that after two freedom of information requests, it had obtained information that showed that fluoridation provides less than a 1% rate of improvement in tooth decay when averaged across the country, and that Portland -with no fluoridation whatsoever – faired far healthier than this average.
What’s more, it was reported that a statewide survey that proved HKHP’s years-old statistics hid recent improvements in dental health had been delayed by the pressuring of Upstream employees. Even more damning, it appeared that some health officials had done campaign work while being paid by the state of Oregon with taxpayer money. A string of emails showing evidence to this wrong-doing was turned over by Clean Water Portland, and is currently being reviewed to determine whether these officials broke the law while working for the pro-fluoride campaign.
If you worked for HKHP, hopefully you’re starting to understand what went wrong. Yet still, days after the dust has begun to settle, there are those who claim Portland voters were somehow tricked into doubting health industry officials’ insistence of the safety and benefit of fluoridation. One HKHP staffer claimed the NAACP had been lied to, as though the organization was somehow incapable of looking at all the available information and arriving at their own logical conclusions.
There’s apparently a lot of head-scratching going on among Portland’s wealthy political elite and across the national blogosphere. The fact that a vast majority of Portland voters would reject fluoridation of their drinking water is a narrative that seems to confound many east coast writers in particular. Evidently, they can’t conceive that Portland is a city with a large number of very non-political people who enjoy gardening and simply don’t want fluoride being sprayed on their food. Instead of hurling out hippie insults or making lame Portlandia references, they should look up what bioregionalism means and learn a bit about the Free Cascadia movement if they truly want to understand why HKHP got buried.
What they also don’t seem to understand is that this victory was about far more than fluoride. Portland politicians have ridden the coat tails of Tom McCall and touted a stale green-washed brand while cuddling with big-money interests like the Portland Business Alliance and the City Club. Almost all our current city representatives are in office due to one man, Mark Wiener. This city once had a proud history of citizens fighting city hall and winning. That kind of rebellious spirit has been sorely lacking for far too long.
On Tuesday, May 21st, Rebel Portland came back with a vengeance. No longer can corrupted politicians assume Mark Wiener is an unstoppable wrecking ball in local government. We’ve proven that throwing more money into politics is no promise of power, that with enough passion and legwork, grassroots operators can crush city hall.
Sometimes the good guys do win.
The fight to protect Bull Run fresh water is not over. Already, there is talk of Oregon state politicians plotting whether to challenge the will of the people with legislation in Salem that would nullify Portland’s voters choice on fluoridation.
Let them try. There is now a network of ecologically conscious and politically networked activists in this city capable of stopping big-business interests cold.
As the Tribune pointed out, there are two city commissioners up for reelection who claimed their support of fluoridation would not hurt them. Now, they have something to be afraid of.
We know how to win. See you in the streets.
All images copyright Hart Noecker and Rebel Metropolis.