Washington — Dr. Mike Simpson was reading the paper one morning, when something caught his eye: the local city council had two open seats and only one candidate had filed.
Something stirred inside the former political science major who’d followed his father and uncle into dentistry. That was the moment when Simpson the dentist started to become Simpson the legislator.
“I won with 1,016 votes to 1,008,” he said. “If my dad and my mom and my brother and sister and me and [wife, Kathy] had voted for the other guy, I would still be practicing dentistry.”
City council led to the state legislature, which led to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is currently serving his 11th term in Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District.
“And I would never have run again had I not won that first election,” said Rep. Simpson, a Republican who grew up in Blackfoot, a town of about 12,000 known as the world’s potato capital. In September, the ADA Board of Trustees will honor Rep. Simpson with the ADA Distinguished Service Award at the ADA FDI World Dental Congress in San Francisco. The award is the highest honor the ADA Board of Trustees can bestow on a member.
“As the longest serving dentist member of Congress, Mike Simpson has been a friend of dentistry, and the patients we serve, for decades,” said ADA President Jeffrey M. Cole. “His leadership efforts in Congress to help pass the Action for Dental Health Act will provide access to federal funding for projects that strengthen the safety net and help eliminate barriers to care like Missions of Mercy and emergency room referral programs. With his work on the House Appropriations Committee and the respect he has in the House as a leader that can work with everyone, he has been instrumental in seeing that the oral health programs that benefit patients across the country are funded. Our profession owes a great deal of gratitude to Mike for all he has been able to accomplish.”
Federal programs supporting oral health that Rep. Simpson has pushed for increased funding include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Oral Health, Health Resources and Services Administration, and Indian Health Service.
“Mike has been an outstanding advocate on Capitol Hill for the profession and the public’s oral health,” said Mike Graham, ADA senior vice president for government relations, who’s known Rep. Simpson for more than 20 years. “The work that he does on Capitol Hill, he does because he knows it’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t do it for the glory, he doesn’t do it for the limelight. In fact, he probably shuns it more than most members of Congress that I know. But he is the person that absolutely deserves to receive this award because he is so humble and because he has done so much for the profession and the public.”
“I think it’s undeserved,” said Rep. Simpson, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and also serves on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies subcommittees. “I feel like I’m just doing my job.”
Growing up, Rep. Simpson said he never dreamed of running for Congress. After working for years juggling the state legislature (which is part-time in Idaho, as in many states) and dentistry, he figured he’d go back to being a full-time dentist. Maybe run for governor one day. He certainly didn’t want to leave his beloved mountains. Then he learned incumbent Mike Crapo was planning to vacate the seat to run for the U.S. Senate and the wheels started spinning.
“I came home and said, ‘Kathy, you know, all that work you did to put me through dental school? We’ve built a good practice, we’ve got a good life. How would you like to give all that up for a place about half the salary that we had before, and every two years you’ve got to ask people to send you back?'”
“And she said to me, it kind of surprised me, she said, ‘You’re happier those 10 weeks when you’re in session. So, let’s go try it.’ ”
That was 1998. He’s been in Washington ever since.
“There’s nobody in Congress more aware of the importance of working across the aisle than Mike Simpson,” Mr. Graham said. “In everything he does, he looks to reach across the aisle to his Democrat colleagues to establish relationships and to partner with them on key issues.”
An example of that came in 2015, when President Obama signed legislation into law protecting the Boulder-White Clouds area which, among other things, created three new wilderness designation areas totaling 275,665 acres. Getting the legislation passed was no easy feat. It took 15 years of working with Congress as well bringing different parts of his Idaho constituency together.
“That’s the thing that I’m most proud of,” he said. “We actually had people talking to each other that before we started would never have sat in the same room. Conservationists and ranchers. We brought them all together, and now they actually consult with one another on things.”
Though no longer practicing dentistry, he takes pride in being a dentist and worries about the future for younger generations entering the profession saddled with debt. It’s a priority for him and many of his fellow lawmakers.
“One of the things that really concerns me is the cost of going to dental school anymore and what these students owe when they get out of dental school,” Rep. Simpson said. “It’s almost made it prohibitive to go into private practice by yourself anymore because you have those costs on top of what it costs to build a practice and stuff. It’s not just true in dentistry, but it’s true throughout the college level. We’ve got to do something about that, and try to bring down those costs so that they’re not indebted for the rest of their lives.”
He’s proud of the work he’s done in his home state, particularly in advancing the work of the Idaho National Laboratory, which is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2018, the lab renamed University Boulevard in Idaho Falls “MK Simpson Boulevard” in honor of Rep. Simpson and Kathy Simpson, a longtime (now retired) employee of the lab.
When away from the office, Rep. Simpson decompresses by reading — usually historical fiction that he balances out with the occasional James Patterson novel.
Real books or Kindle?
“I read books. I’ve got to have the smell of the book. I’ve got to be able to turn pages. I’ve got to be able to underline, write things in the margin, all that kind of stuff,” he said.
He also enjoys howling with his dog, Charlie. Yes, howling.
“I FaceTime him every night,” he said. “I actually call on the phone, and the dog knows the FaceTime ring. He’ll be in the other room and get up and he will run and sit on the back of the chair by Kathy’s desk and wait. I’ll answer and I will start howling at him, and he’ll start howling back. People think that’s kind of weird. I said, ‘No, it’s true.'”
Maybe someone can FaceTime the award ceremony for Charlie, which will take place during the Opening Ceremony and General Session at the ADA FDI World Dental Congress in San Francisco. The event will be held in Moscone West, Level 1, 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday Sept. 5.