An issue with teeth

Pinellas Commissioners’ 4-3 anti-fluoride vote has put a scare into voters. But there’s another development that’s even scarier.

It was almost exactly a year ago (October 11, 2011) that the Pinellas County Commission voted 4-3 to stop adding fluoride to the county’s water supply. Although water fluoridation had long met resistance in Pinellas (one reason why the county only approved it eight years earlier), critics of the 2011 vote traced it to a Tea Party-led furor that compelled commissioner John Morroni to change his mind and support the three other conservatives on the board, Norm Roche, Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock.

Bostock and Brickfield are running for re-election, and their Democratic opponents, Charlie Justice and Janet Long, are using the contentious issue as a reason why they should be elected next month. But theirs are not the only races where the fluoride issue is baring its bicuspids. Here’s the rundown on a few of them. (In District 5, Karen Seel is running unopposed.)

District 7: Ken Welch vs. Buck Walz

As the only Democrat on the Board of County Commissioners, Ken Welch hasn’t been shy about combating the views of Tea Party members, and what he perceives as their ignorance regarding transit, the budget, and especially fluoride. But he is surprised at the resonance of the anti-fluoride vote on the campaign trail.

Welch has been endorsed by St. Petersburg Mayor Foster, as well as former mayors Rick Baker and David Fischer, in his bid for re-election against Republican Buck Walz. To win his endorsement, Welch answered just one question from Fischer: Did he support fluoride in the water? His answer was yes, of course, and he says that’s the “number one question” he’s been hearing “all across the county.”

Tea Party members vowed to challenge Welch on the board this time around. Their candidate, the 33-year-old Walz, calls himself a winner and a leader on the campaign trail. He works in construction and says he represents the small-business community.

Welch is more than happy to debate the Tea Party’s hard-right leaning conservatives.

“They believe in Agenda 21 conspiracies as driving our policies,” says the 48-year-old St. Pete native. “I just think they’re outside of the mainstream of Pinellas County, so I welcome the debate, and I’ve yet to hear Mr. Walz’s policy positions or community service that would indicate where he would lead this county.”

District 1: Nancy Bostock vs. Charlie Justice

Charlie Justice needs a win.

The talented Democrat had been a bright star in Pinellas County political circles for over a decade, moving from the state House to the Senate in 2006. But instead of running for re-election in his hybrid Pinellas/Hillsborough seat two years ago, he tried to do what no one has been able to accomplish, well, ever — defeat Pinellas Congressman Bill Young.

Let’s just say it did not turn out so well. Justice, now the coordinator of leadership development and programming at USF St. Petersburg, lost to the GOP heavyweight by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Now he’s running for a County Commission seat against Nancy Bostock, a GOP fiscal hawk running for re-election after a previous stint on the county’s School Board.

Justice is definitely using fluoride as a cudgel in the campaign.

At a recent candidates forum in Gulfport, Bostock addressed the issue by saying that the commission in fact was not taking fluoride out of the water, insisting that in fact “fluoride was always in the water. We voted to stop adding additional chemicals to the water.”

She says her vote was pro-choice, as it were, allowing residents to decide on their own whether they want fluoride in their water or not.

“I think we should go to the experts,” she said. “I just happen to think the experts are you.”

Justice told the audience his opponent was running away from the issue at hand.

“Let’s be clear. Fluoride was in the water. Pinellas County was putting fluoride in the water. The current commission voted to take it out. To stop it. Whatever terminology you want.”

Justice is being supported by several medical groups and others that rarely endorse Democrats, such as the Pinellas Realtors Organization and the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, in strong part because of Bostock’s vote.

Another of those groups is the Upper Pinellas County Dental Association, led by Oscar Menendez. He paid to put up a billboard outside his Palm Harbor dental office in late September touting Justice and fellow Democrat Janet Long in their respective races.

Menendez has been working in Pinellas for the past 19 years and says for much of that time, when he would do dental screenings at health fairs in Clearwater, he treated kids with lots of decayed teeth. He says that since the county voted in 2003 to add fluoride, the change has been dramatic.

“By removing the fluoride, the people who are going to be hurt are those lower-income, less privileged [ones],” he says.

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