Heather Leek and Rebecca Bauer both voted for President Barack Obama, champion school funding measures and support the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
But over cocktails one recent evening, the longtime Portland friends found themselves sparring over fluoridating Portland’s water.
“I didn’t see that coming,” said Leek, a supporter of fluoridation and president of an elementary school parent-teacher association, who was surprised by her friend’s opposition. “It just seemed to me if you’re educated on the subject, it’s something you would be for.”
Bauer, a retired Portland Public Schools teacher, insisted there are better ways to provide fluoride and dental care for low-income children. “To me, protecting our children means don’t be putting stuff in the water,” she said.
Another friend changed the topic to the Seattle Mariners.
The cocktail-hour dispute mirrors the tense conversations playing out among neighbors, family members and colleagues who rarely have to navigate fault lines within blue Portland.
But as voters consider whether to vote yes or no on fluoridation in the May primary, the debate in some cases has triggered the kind of accusations and acrimony typically seen between entrenched partisan enemies, not among the Portland voters who routinely approve library levies and send Democratic candidates to office.
“This really does reshuffle the deck in some fascinating ways that confound traditional lines,” said Phil Keisling, director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Mark Hatfield School of Government. “It has created some pretty interesting bedfellows on both sides of the ideological divide.”
How interesting? Consider some of those lining up against fluoridation: the Oregon Sierra Club’s Columbia Group, the Portland NAACP, the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute, the Kansas Taxpayers Network and an Indiana-based alternative health company that advocates, among other things, using tanning beds for vitamin D dosage.
On the other side? OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, the Urban League of Portland, the Northwest Health Foundation, the campaign funds from several Democratic state legislators and conservative talk-radio host Lars Larson.
The issue stirs emotions because values that Portlanders hold dear — public health and individual rights — are in conflict, said Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state and Portland resident. Throw in concerns over the government putting something into the water supply, Keisling said, and you have a population that is “not just split, but very strongly split.”
People on both sides report having their signs stolen or vandalized. In Grant Park someone left a letter next to a family’s pro-fluoridation sign. The letter, written on floral stationery with purple blossoms and butterflies, objected to “polluting our water.” It told Northeast Portland resident Jon Coney, an insider among state Democrats, and his family to “move somewhere else!!” It was unsigned.
Debate on blogs and on Facebook pages, meanwhile, appears stuck in CAPS LOCK mode.
Adrienne Davis, a support engineer who is pro-fluoridation, recently got in a Facebook battle with other left-leaning friends who are opposed. The exchange grew heated, leaving some bruised feelings, she said.
The rhetoric she’s seeing reminds her of arguments between conservatives and liberals. She likened some of the comments by opponents to those who deny climate change.
“If we were talking about global warming and anti-scientific language, people would say, ‘Oh, those Republicans, they’re idiots,'” she said. “When it comes to something that is their sacred cow, science can go out the window.”
The feelings go both ways.
Fluoridation opponents say proponents are not educating themselves and bristle at being cast as unsympathetic to families who can’t afford dental care.
Fluoridation is a blunt instrument for addressing a more systemic problem — access to dental and health care — that needs more than “a Band-Aid” to truly help low-income families, said fluoridation opponent Susan Laarman, a public relations professional whose clients include Mercy Corps and natural foods organizations. Portland’s “iconic Bull Run water” is not the right vehicle, she maintained.
“It is emotional for me, and I just feel like if it’s in our water, I can’t abide,” she said.
Still, she refrains from bringing it up at social gatherings, she said.
“I had to get out from my own dinner party,” she said, recalling a December event when the topic came up. “I was frustrated because it was clear that people didn’t have any background in this.” She went to the kitchen to cool off.
For Clifford Walker, a board member of the local chapter of the NAACP, the decision to oppose fluoride stems in part from concern about potential health impacts to people with diabetes. He also noted his mistrust of government policies throughout the nation’s history that negatively impacted blacks.
But at the Urban League, Michael Alexander sees fluoridation as a pragmatic, attainable way to provide a basic level of dental health that will particularly help the low-income families who can’t afford dental visits.
Opponents “say we can do this, or we can do that” instead of fluoridation to improve oral health, Alexander said. “We can do a lot of things. But we have not done them.”
With fluoridation, he said, “we do not see a significant risk that would justify continuing the way that we have been.”
Regardless of how the election turns out, supporters and opponents don’t expect a permanent rift.
“We have taken different paths on this issue,” Alexander said of the Urban League and its historic allies at the NAACP. But, he said, “at the end of this, we will be back together advocating for the rights of African Americans and underserved people in this community.”