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State Politics

Feb. 1, 2010
Eileen Kowall, RDH, tackles the issues as a Michigan legislator
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Eileen Kowall, RDH, tackles the issues as a Michigan legislator

by Cathleen Alty, RDH

Politics and dental hygiene are no strangers. The battles that rage between dentistry and dental hygiene often bleed onto the Capitol building debate floors as each side fights for legislation to support their positions. We win some; we lose some, but the war rages on, each side trying to find new arguments and allies for support. The dental hygienists of Michigan are fortunate to have Eileen Kowall, RDH, serving as a state representative.

Rep. Kowall
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A 1974 graduate of the University of Detroit, Eileen was attracted to dental hygiene for many reasons. “I liked the health care field and working with people to maintain and improve their health. Also, for planning a family, I knew it would be a good career to have while raising children.” She actively practiced dental hygiene, with some time off for the births of her two daughters, Marissa and Stephanie, until 1990.

Political aspirations often begin when working on local grassroots causes, and involvement with a local zoning issue inspired her husband, Mike, to run for the Michigan State House of Representatives and serve two terms. “Mike and I were always discussing state and local issues, so when a seat opened up on the Oakland County (Michigan) Board of Commissioners, I decided to become more involved.”

Serving as a commissioner from 2002 to 2008 opened her eyes to the problems of inadequate state funding for increasing state demands. “I was unhappy at some of the unfunded mandates the state was pushing on us. Oakland County is a very well run county, and I wanted to bring some of our best business practices to the state. When the existing state representative was termed out, I ran for the seat against five opponents, and won. I took office this past January.”

Eileen said a political career was never on the radar. In fact, she says it's still a surprise to her that she got involved in politics at all. “In high school, I probably would have been voted the least likely to go into politics. You grow and change, however, and I've always believed in challenging myself. I had to laugh when I took a Dale Carnegie course several years ago. They talk about expanding your ‘hula–hoop' of comfort. It seems like I'm always running past my hula–hoop and then bringing it out to where I am.”

Has the political career been what she expected? “I knew it would be very busy and hectic, but not quite the level that it is. There is so much in the way of information, issues, etc. coming at me that it's like drinking from a fire hose! I have a great staff and a lot of resources, and things are starting to settle in.”

Being involved takes time

The public may think of elected officials as having lots of time on their hands, but Eileen says differently. “Being in politics and being an elected official is all–consuming. Your schedule is all over the map, and one week is nothing like the next. It takes a strong, supportive family to be in politics, and it is important to make time to spend with your family. You also get to meet a lot of really wonderful people and some real characters. I make it a point to keep touch with my constituents and listen to their questions, concerns, and suggestions. It is very satisfying when I'm able to help people solve problems they have with state or local government, or just be able to help them find the answers.”

Like most states, Michigan is in the midst of some very tough economic times. Eileen is in the middle of many aspects of the fight to balance a state budget against rising unemployment and decreasing revenues. What are the most important issues facing Michigan? “The economy and jobs,” she says. “Being in such an automotive–related state, we're especially hard hit by job losses and foreclosures, with people and businesses leaving the state. Local and state government revenues have fallen to the point where we are forced to make drastic cuts in order to balance the state budget. Providing services to people in need is becoming next to impossible.

“Everything hinges on jobs,” she continued. “With jobs people can make a living, be self–supporting, and spend money in their communities. In order to have more jobs, we need to make Michigan a more business–friendly state. We need an educated workforce to fill the jobs of the future. We're working on diversifying our economy and asking ourselves what will be the Michigan of the future. Where do we see ourselves in 10, 20, and 50 years?”

To help ensure a positive future for the state, Eileen holds leadership within her party's caucus. Her accomplishments include running orderly, efficient meetings that cover the agenda and produce action. She finds that party lines are often barriers to the change the state so desperately needs. “Being a Republican, and being the minority (43 Republicans to 67 Democrats), makes it very difficult to get our bills even brought up, never mind passing the House. I did pass a bill that changes the sentencing vehicle for repeat drug offences. It was mainly a clean–up bill due to sentencing revisions in 2002, but it felt great to get something passed. Right now it's in the Senate and I'm hoping it will pass and get signed by the governor.”

In all the party lines, Eileen wants to find the middle ground. “I have great hope, though, having a more bipartisan chamber. While both sides have principles they can't compromise, a lot can be agreed upon in the middle. We've even formed a freshman bipartisan caucus. The 46 freshman legislators are determined to make a difference!”

Eileen finds her dental hygiene skills play a part in her new political life. “As a dental hygienist, I learned to influence patients and sell them on the idea of good dental heath habits. I guess the same is true when you're trying to convince other legislators or people that you deal with on a daily basis to see the value in your goals and ideas.

“As a dental hygienist, you see your patients and then you're pretty much done for the day,” she continued. “As an elected official, you're never done and there is always an issue that needs to be addressed. Also as a hygienist, your life is much more orderly as you concentrate on one patient at a time. As a state representative, if you didn't have ADHD when you got here, you'll have it by the time you leave! Despite the difficult patients and playing beat the clock, there are days when I long for the solitude of the operatory.”

What are the positives and negatives of her new role? “My least favorite part by far is the nasty, negative campaigning. They say if you can't stand the sight of your own blood, don't get involved with politics. You develop a very thick skin after a while. My favorite part by far is the people. I've met so many people in my community that going to the grocery store for a few items takes a lot longer than it used to.

I've also met many people from around my state and the country.”

Eileen encourages people to get involved with politics at whatever level they feel comfortable. “No matter what profession you're in, if you find that you're passionate about issues and care about what happens, I encourage you to get involved in politics on some level. There are many clubs, causes, and associations to join. Perhaps you could help out a candidate that you believe in. Perhaps you could run for office yourself. You can be involved with your association and tuned into proposed legislation that may impact the dental hygiene profession in your state, i.e., scope of practice issues. You can be a voice advocating ‘for' or ‘in opposition' to legislation dealing with hygiene issues or health issues in general.”

To become involved, Eileen recommends starting with the local level of government to get to know the people and issues important to the area.

She concludes, “It's such an honor to serve in the state legislature and work with such talented people from every walk of life and all over Michigan.”

Cathleen Terhune Alty, RDH, is a frequent contributor. She is based in Clarkston, Mich.