CDA leader plans to advocate for dentistry in state Legislature

Jim Wood, DDS, has a busy schedule these days.

Speaking to CDA Update staff on a Monday, he described how he would be leading a Healdsburg City Council meeting that night and then driving immediately afterward to Fortuna, which is three hours away. Then, he would be driving to Del Norte County for a series of meetings that would last all the next day, followed by another drive to Eureka for another series of community meetings before finally making it home on Wednesday at about midnight.

Wood is running for election in the 2nd Assembly District, which covers all or part of Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity and Sonoma counties, or 325 miles of California’s coast. Wood, a general dentist in Cloverdale since 1987, estimated that he has driven 31,000 miles since March and that he will end up driving about 70,000 miles by the time of the primary election on June 3.

If elected, he would join what currently is a supermajority in the California Assembly, and would be the only dentist member of the California Legislature.

Wood, who is a Democrat running in a largely Democratic district, has a strong history in CDA leadership. After his Cloverdale practice was established, he wasted little time before becoming active in the policy arena with CDA. After first becoming involved with the Redwood Empire Dental Society (where he served as president in 2000-01), he was appointed to the CDA Council on Legislation (now the Government Affairs Council) in 1998, and served for six years, culminating with two years as council chair in 2003-04, and served as a CDA trustee from 2003-06 and chair of CalDPAC until 2012. Wood currently serves as the mayor of Healdsburg.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with CDA Update.

You have thrown your hat into the ring for a State Assembly seat in the 2014 election season. What prompted you to start this effort?

For me, it was a perfect storm. My activities with CDA in the advocacy arena inspired me to become more involved in my community. It is the reason I decided to seek appointment to the Healdsburg Planning Commission and later to run for City Council. My decision wasn’t based on any “grand plan,” it was an evolution of all the things I had been doing for the last 15 years. Based on all of those accumulated experiences, when this new opportunity arose, I was able to say to myself, “I can do this, I can be an effective candidate and, if elected, I can be an effective legislator.”

The improvements California voters made to the legislative terms limits law in  2012  definitely influenced my decision to run for the Assembly. I want to be able to focus on significant long-term issues, and now, if you are elected to the Senate or Assembly, you can serve in the same house for up to 12 years. Prior to that, you were limited to six years in the Assembly or eight years in the Senate, and that made it difficult to work on things long-term. You would have to try to jump between houses every few years, or leave for a few years and run again, forcing you to build relationships and develop policy expertise all over again.

If elected, you would become the only dentist serving in the state Legislature. How important is it that the profession has a voice at the Capitol?

I think it is huge, and it could even be more significant than that. If elected, I might be the only health care provider of any kind serving in the state Assembly. I think a health care provider’s perspective is missing when a lot of decisions are made at the Capitol, and the decisions being made now are of enormous long-term importance. So my candidacy presents a huge opportunity for patients and health care professionals to have a much-needed voice at the state level.

What are some of the issues facing dentistry right now that you would like to tackle if you are elected?

There are immediate threats regarding MICRA [Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act], both legislatively and at the ballot box. There are always challenges regarding professional scope of practice, and challenges with third-party payers.

But it is difficult to anticipate, at this point, exactly what I would tackle. For me, my focus right now is working hard to get to know the people of the 2nd Assembly District. We don’t know what the political landscape will look like a year from now. In 2015, when the new Assembly and Senate classes take office, it will be a different landscape, and that will dictate what we focus on. My basic goal will be to advocate for health care in general and especially for oral health care.

The Affordable Care Act obviously is going to have major implications on every health profession, including dentistry. How important will it be for the profession to have someone in the Legislature who understands dentistry as all of this plays out?

I think it will be really important. Too often, legislation is passed that may seem like a good idea to people, but without having a practitioner weigh in who actually has provided care, I think the decision-makers are missing something. If elected, I will be in the majority party and thus will be in a strong position to help move policy issues forward in a sound and thoughtful way.
You have had many roles at CDA over the years.  What attracted you to organized dentistry as you began your career as a dentist, and what did you learn from that experience?

I have always had an interest in public policy going back to my college days. The opportunity to serve with CDA, on what was then known as  the Council on Legislation, was natural for me and something I could not pass up. The entire experience helped me understand how bills are developed and the process they go through, and it also gave me a perspective on the regulatory process. A lot of people don’t realize that when a bill passes and is signed by the governor, it’s just the first step before agencies have to implement it through regulations. That process can significantly affect the actual requirements placed on dental professionals when a new law is actually implemented. I also was privileged to be involved in CDA’s own transition as an organization as we began to actively sponsor more legislation. Before that, CDA tended to be pretty reactive, responding defensively to bills proposed by others. During my years of involvement, CDA became much more proactive  pursuing its own legislative agenda on behalf of patients and the profession. Now, of course, it’s not uncommon for CDA to be sponsoring three or four bills at one time.

Eventually, I served as a trustee and later had the opportunity to serve as the CalDPAC chair. That was when I began to feel confident about my ability to run for and serve in the Legislature. As I participated in numerous candidate interviews and saw firsthand how election campaigns were put together, I gained a better understanding of what it would take to run for office. Then in 2005, I ran for my own city council, and I was fortunate enough to be elected, and then reelected in 2010.  This local governing experience gave me the further grounding and confidence I needed before running for the Assembly.

In addition to all of your other leadership roles, you also are a nationally recognized leader in forensic dentistry. How did you get into that line of work?

When I was a senior in dental school, I attended a weekly seminar series on aspects of the profession that didn’t get a lot of attention in the curriculum. One of those evenings, the topic was forensic dentistry that featured the noted expert Dr. Skip Sperber from San Diego. I found it fascinating, and after seven years of practicing general dentistry, I took another class from the late Dr. Gerald Vale, and then became actively involved in it. In addition to my regular practice, I’ve been doing forensic dentistry for 18 years now for five counties and the Department of Justice. I am proud to be one of 100 or so dentists who are certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology.

It is fascinating and deeply rewarding work, and I think it is a valuable way to use my skills because identification of loved ones in those tragic situations is very important to those who have lost a family member. It begins to help bring closure to great personal tragedy.

As a forensic dentist, you served as a member of the emergency response teams following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Talk about that.

I was in New York for 10 days after 9/11 and I was in New Orleans after Katrina for two weeks. I was very fortunate and honored to be able to go and help with the identification process after both of those events. It was demanding and difficult work, but it was gratifying personally to have a skill that was needed by law enforcement and families as well.
What are some of your achievements as a member of the Healdsburg City Council?

For me, local elected office is where you can have the most immediate impact on people’s lives. People in town will call me about a streetlight that is out and I can pick up a phone and have it fixed that day or the next day. In a city like Healdsburg, we can be really responsive because we are a small community. But my proudest accomplishment was that we managed our city successfully during one of the worst economic downturns any of us have ever experienced. As 2008 came, Healdsburg was headed in the wrong direction financially. A lot of my work has been focused on righting the ship so the city is economically strong in the future. And as the economy has improved, we now find ourselves in a much better financial position. We also have been able to rehabilitate some of our parks and some of our open space for our residents to enjoy. But a lot of our work is ensuring financial stability. My experience with CDA was extremely valuable for me working with state and federal elected officials and agencies and I am proud to have been instrumental in bringing almost $15,000,000 in infrastructure funding to our community.

My primary goal right now is to complete a strategic plan for Healdsburg for the next 10 years or longer.
How will that local experience help you at the next level?

All of the work I have done over the last 15 years has built a base of knowledge and relationships with people, and to learn how to work with different groups to solve problems. I have been very encouraged when I meet with people in Sacramento about my candidacy. My skillset is very unusual for someone running for state office. I’m a health care provider and a small business owner, I am pragmatic and I am open to meeting with everybody. It’s encouraging because I’m not looking at this as a career, I am looking at this as an opportunity to serve the district I represent, and at the same time serve my profession.

What do you take pride in most as a dentist?

Being a dentist has taught me a lot of things about taking care of people. We are a profession that gives back a lot, and I want to take that perspective to the Capitol. I take pride in the relationships I developed with my patients, and the fact that people trusted me with their care and did so for a long time.

I think it is magnified in a small town like the one I live in, where you see your patients around town regularly. For some of my friends who practice in large cities, it is very rare that they see patients when they are out and about. But I see my patients almost everywhere I go in my community, and I take great pride in saying hello and knowing about their families. For me, it is all about those long-term relationships, and it’s the hardest thing to leave behind when you decide to sell your practice.

How has the campaign gone so far? What are you hearing from other dentists out there on the campaign trail?

I think the campaign is going very well. The feedback has been very positive. The community of dentistry has been very supportive of my candidacy. One of the things I get is dentists thanking me for running, and telling me that it is not easy out there these days and there is a lot of pressure on the profession. I tell people that is one of the reasons I am doing this. Having someone in the majority party at the Capitol could have a huge impact on the future of dentistry. Having a dentist in the Assembly for up to 12 years will be a positive for the profession.

A lot of dentists also say to me, “Wow, there is no way I would do that.” But I think dentists are really well suited to run for office when you consider what we do as a profession. People walk through my practice’s door and I have to figure out a way to get along with all of them. The better I do that, the better the overall experience is for all of us. It’s just the nature of what we do. That is why people feel loyal to their dentist. If they like their dentist they will stick with him or her a long time. I know it is a lot easier for me to connect with people in my political life because of what I learned as a dentist.

For more information about Wood’s Assembly campaign, visit jimwoodforassembly.com.

Topics: Advocacy