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Politically Correct

Oct. 1, 2003
Five hygienists describe their venture into politics ... and how it really isn't that different from what they have already been doing.

by Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH

What would compel a dental hygienist to trade in her scalers for the campaign trail? According to five dental hygienists who are involved in the political arena, it's a passion to serve others at a broader level. They believe dental hygiene is the perfect training ground for anyone interested in running for office.

The similarities between dental hygiene and politics are amazing. Both involve serving the public, and both focus on improving people's lives. Neither career will result in great financial gains, yet the personal rewards are great.

Tim Lynch, ADHA Governmental Relations Director, meets with Diann Bomkamp, JoAnn Gurenlian, and Bonnie Bothoff at the legistalive reception held at the ADHA's 2003 annual session in New York City last summer.
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Dental hygienists must be excellent strategists, savvy negotiators, and ultimate dealmakers. We must be able to focus simultaneously on the big picture and the minute details, know which battles to pick, when to cut our losses, and when to walk away from a losing proposition. Successful hygienists also must possess excellent "baloney radar" and have the ability to roll with the punches. We practice these skills every day with our patients, employers, and co-workers.

Who are the five politically motivated women? Joann Gurenlian, Diann Bomkamp, Vickie Nardello, Bonnie Nothoff, and Virginia Woodward. Each of their lists of accomplishments is impressive, and they share one common denominator — they began their professional careers as clinical dental hygienists.

Of the five, Woodward is the only one who grew up surrounded by politics. Gurenlian, Bomkamp, and Nothoff have spent much time working with their local political parties and volunteering in candidates' campaigns. This first-hand training gave them a jump-start on what to expect.

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Vickie Nardello is the hygienist who has already enjoyed success with voters. She will be running for her sixth term in the Connecticut House of Representatives in 2004. She was a true political novice when she first ran. She didn't have any political experience other than what she acquired through ADHA. Nardello continues to run because she still has a passion for the issues and because many committee and leadership assignments are based on seniority. As her terms progress, individuals and other legislators look to her for leadership in the areas of public and oral health, which makes her an effective legislator.

Nardello reports the biggest hurdle in serving effectively is putting her personal feelings aside and staying focused on the problem. She says politicians must have a willingness to compromise and listen to those who both agree and disagree with them.

Virginia Woodward ran for the Kentucky State Senate a decade ago and lost the primary by 45 votes, a loss that was just close enough to encourage her to run again in 1998 for a congressional seat. She was again sidelined by a narrow defeat, heavily affected by a last minute redistricting plan. But the veteran campaigner decided to try for a state representative seat in 2002.

Even though her final loss was hard, Woodward acknowledged she learned a lot about the political process. She said the "good old boys" network is always challenged by independent thinkers. She points with pride to her appointment as executive director of the 1996 Kentucky Commission on Women, and to her seat on the governor's cabinet. During her time, an Office on Women's Health was established and a Women's Health bill was passed. Politics still fascinate Woodward, and she's currently working in a Kentucky gubernatorial race.

While the five women come from different backgrounds, their interest in politics stemmed from their many activities in ADHA. Each one served as president of their state and local component, and Gurenlian and Woodward are past presidents of ADHA.

When asked if her dental hygiene career helped prepare her for running for political office in the 2004 Michigan race, Bonnie Nothoff offered the following observations. "Dental hygiene has taught me discipline, detail, how to know if what I'm reading is scientific and/or credible, interaction with people, listening skills, observation skills, tolerance, and joy in accomplishment. In fact, now that you asked me the question, I believe it's taught me just about everything!"

Access to oral health care and oral health are at the top of each candidate's list of important issues they feel should be addressed and resolved at the state level. Each candidate has other important issues such as education, roads, and economic development, but fiscal responsibility and ethics are also high on their agendas. One wonders if their interest in careful money management and honesty has come from years of dental hygiene practice.

All five women are married and agree that a supportive family is a must for running for office. Gurenlian is the only candidate who still has children at home, but running for political office has been her dream for more than a decade. Her husband and two children have adjusted their lives to support her goals. They are willing to juggle responsibilities and are taking the campaign one day at a time. If Gurenlian is elected this November, she acknowledges that the New Jersey state house in Trenton is just up the road from her house, so commuting to the legislature twice a week would be manageable.

The two biggest headaches each of these women faced were raising campaign funds and finding enough volunteers. Running for office is expensive, and no one knows that better than Bomkamp. When she ran for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives in 2002, her opponent outspent her four to one. Bomkamp lost the race by less than 600 votes. Since she is committed to not overspending, she started to raise funds one year in advance to try to win the election in 2004.

Woodward, the veteran candidate, says that raising funds is exceedingly difficult. However, she managed to raise almost $200,000 in her bid for the U.S. Congress, all through $25 to $100 contributions. She is convinced that it's possible to raise money, and her track record of raising $90,000 for her state senate race and $40,000 for the representative race speaks for itself. Woodward now uses her fundraising skills and contacts to raise money for other candidates as well as for non-profit causes she supports.

Volunteers are the candidates' next source of joy and frustration. It takes a lot of manpower to put out signs, make phone calls, and send out mailings. Each candidate has called on every friend and colleague for help, in addition to asking for the support of the professional organization. There was a special fundraising reception at the 2003 ADHA Annual Session in New York where Gurenlian, Bomkamp, and Nothoff met with supporters from all over the country.

Nardello, who was born in Italy, likes to entice her campaign workers with food, and she frequently prepares delicious treats for them. Her specialties are homemade pasta and desserts. While Nardello is out working the polls on election day, her mother takes over as chief cook.

Nothoff has an interesting insight about her most unexpected challenge during campaigning. She said that, even though a candidate may be warmly received and encouraged by many, a cynical question can come out of nowhere. When she answers from her knowledge base and her heart, most cynical questions disappear. This sounds like excellent advice that could be applied in many arenas.

The candidates agree that the compensation for legislators is similar to that of dental hygienists, and they are aware they'll have to keep a close eye on costs. For example, Nothoff will maintain an office at home rather than renting space. Bomkamp hopes to continue in dental hygiene one morning a week. Gurenlian plans to continue her consulting business on a limited basis. Even though Nardello has been in the legislature for a long time, she still manages to provide clinical services at a school-based dental clinic.

Each candidate has her own little piece of advice for people who catch the political fever. Gurenlian recommends candidates do their homework. Talk to other candidates who have run for public office. Second, if a political career is something you have dreamed about, do it! Gurenlian hopes to see more hygienists involved in the political arena.

Nothoff advises, "Have a fire in your belly, never speak on an issue you don't know, remember your dental hygiene discipline and use it, and give 100 percent."

Since Bomkamp has run for office before, she offers the advice of a veteran campaigner. "Work on someone else's campaign before you run. Start early to prepare and plan your campaign strategy. Eat properly and get enough sleep and exercise. Campaigns are grueling. Pray a lot and try to keep a good sense of humor, especially when your opponent says terrible and false things about you. Spend quality time with your family. Even if you lose the election, you will be a winner for trying!"

Nardello and Woodward agree that the support of family and friends is a necessity. In addition, Nardello recommends not to engage in any behavior that compromises your values in order to win or stay in office. She also feels it's important to listen to your instincts. Experts aren't always right! "Even if you lose, you will learn from the experience and the dental hygiene profession will benefit as well," she said.

Everything we do in clinical dental hygiene, or in life for that matter, involves a political assessment and a series of calculated moves, so it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to translate these skills into a different arena. The stakes may seem higher and the deals might appear different for those running for office than the challenges the rest of us face in clinical practice, but the decision making process we use to protect the health of our patients is not much different than the decisions these candidates make regarding their constituents.

Just remember, our patients vote for us every time they enter our treatment rooms. So maybe some of you are ready to take your skills into a new arena — politics!

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, practices clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas. She writes, speaks, and presents continuing-education courses on ergonomics and advanced ultrasonic instrumentation through her company, ErgoSonics ( She can be reached by phone at (713) 974-4540 or by e-mail at anne@ergosonics. com.