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Pharmacists Aim for State Office

Kate Traynor

July 20 was a good day for pharmacist Buddy Carter.

That was the day Carter, the five-term mayor of Pooler, Georgia, defeated seven-term incumbent Ann Purcell in the Republican primary for the newly created State House District 159.

Before the redistricting that created District 159, Purcell had represented District 122 as a Democrat. She switched parties after Carter announced his intention to run for the new House seat, leaving the district with no Democratic contender for the legislative office.

Carter's win in the primary means that he heads to the statehouse next January without facing an opponent in the general election this fall.

"It's a great feeling," Carter said after winning his race. "This district is really where I have grown up and lived my adult life. It's an honor and a privilege for me to serve and represent the people here."

From Activist to Candidate

Randy Kuiper gained personal experience with state-level politics when he testified before legislators in Montana about the need for collaborative drug therapy management legislation.

A clinical pharmacy coordinator at Benefis Healthcare in Great Falls, Montana, Kuiper befriended the state representative who carried the legislation and was recruited by him to run for an open seat in House District 20. Kuiper faces Democrat George Golie, who is seeking a fourth term in the House this November.

Kuiper has served two terms on his neighborhood council, but this is his first run for state office. He currently chairs ASHP's Council on Legal and Public Affairs.

Kuiper said the legislator who recruited him has served as a mentor and helped explain how the system works.

"I had no idea what was involved in [a] run for state office," he said. "I didn't realize that it took so much work to campaign, because in Montana, you're successful in legislative races by getting out and meeting people and going door-to-door."

Kuiper said he can live with the pay cut that comes with being a part-time legislator instead of a full-time pharmacist. He added that his boss and the hospital administration have supported his decision to run for office.

If he wins, Kuiper will travel about 90 miles from Great Falls to the state capitol, Helena, where the legislature meets for a 90-day session every two years. "I think I can still commute and stay in touch with the important things on my job" during legislative sessions, he said.

Kuiper believes people with experience in health care are needed in political office.

"Montana depends on people that are elected to craft good laws," he said. "When health care providers aren't involved in the process, I think it hurts the ability to optimize health care policy. I think more physicians, pharmacists, [and] nurses should get involved."

Kuiper said that no matter what happens in November, campaigning "has been a real learning experience."

"Win or lose," he said, "I think it will be a valuable thing for me to have gone through, to understand the political process and what it takes to get elected."

Carter ran on a broad platform instead of focusing on health care issues. For instance, he said, "we have some water issues down here that are of the utmost importance" to constituents. But he said his pharmacist background will be a plus when it comes to dealing with health care issues that affect his district.

Carter, who owns two community pharmacies and sold but still manages Carter's Institutional Pharmacy, said his interest in politics goes back at least to his college days, when he served as freshman class president.

"I've always been involved, even when I was growing up," Carter said. "I've been involved in city government, in city politics, for the past 15 years." He resigned his post as mayor in April after qualifying to run for the House seat.

Carter said running for office at the state level is like running for local office but is "a bigger process."

"You still have to do the things that you've always done—meeting people, going door to door, the signs, the meetings, all of those things," he said. "But it's a bigger area that you have to cover."

He described the month leading up to the primary as a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week sprint. "Of course, when I was really working in my institutional pharmacy and in my retail pharmacies, it was 24/7 for me then," he said. "I think, basically, you find that most people excel at those things that they work hard at."

The view from the capitol. Former pharmacist Curt Gielow, freshman state representative for Wisconsin District 23, has two years of experience with the legislative life since his first run for state office in 2002.

Gielow said his background as a pharmacist, hospital administrator, health care consultant, and entrepreneur did not entirely prepare him for how the legislative process works.

"I've just observed that we don't get anything done easily, and it takes forever," Gielow said. "That's part of the democratic process. But it is disconcerting to a businessman."

Of the five pharmacists known to ASHP who ran for state legislative office for the first time in 2002, Gielow, a Republican, is the only candidate who won.

He said pharmacists and other people with a health care background are needed in the legislative arena.

"There are too few providers of health care in public policymaking positions," Gielow said. "Pharmacists," he added, "are well trained in the disciplines of public health, and they could be very significant advocates of good public policy."

Gielow focused in part on health care issues during his first legislative session, including a pilot program for group insurance purchasing by individuals and small businesses and a bill that provides training opportunities for pharmacy technicians to administer injections.

Of the 14 bills Gielow authored during his first term, 8 passed both legislative houses. Gielow has advanced to vice chairman of the House Health Committee. He said he plans to run for reelection in 2006 and hopes to become chairman of the Health Committee.

"Chairmanship of a committee puts you in a more powerful position to effectuate policy, because you decide what comes on the agenda and what doesn't come on the agenda, and you can push your own initiatives," Gielow explained.

The voice of experience. Pharmacist and 15-year legislative veteran Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat, is serving her second term in the Texas Senate, representing District 26. Van de Putte served five terms in the House before winning a special election to the Senate in 1999. Because of redistricting within the state, she faces another election in November to win a new four-year term.

Van de Putte gained national fame last year when she led a group of 11 Democratic state senators into exile in New Mexico for six weeks to prevent a vote on the redistricting. The protest ended after one of the legislators returned home, producing a quorum in the Senate and allowing the vote to go forward.

If she retains her seat, Van de Putte can look forward to receiving a $600 monthly salary for serving approximately 700,000 constituents—far less pay than she could receive working as a full-time pharmacist.

Although she loves being a senator, Van de Putte said that the low pay probably discourages pharmacists and other health care providers from seeking elected office.

"I am begging for more folks in the health care arena to come forth and serve," Van de Putte said. She said states need this expertise because they administer Medicaid and children's health insurance programs and provide health benefits for teachers, state employees, and retirees.

"We have another pharmacist in the House . . . and we have two physicians in the Senate," Van de Putte said. "I'm thankful that they're there."

Van de Putte has won awards for advancing health-care-related legislation, including provisions to pay pharmacists for patient care services, insurance reform, and the adoption of a statewide universal prescription drug card. She was named chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus in 2002 and also chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee.

Van de Putte is available year-round to help her constituents but works from the state capitol only in odd years from January through June and during special sessions, when the Texas legislature meets. When the legislature is in recess, Van de Putte works in a community pharmacy.

She said pharmacy is "a wonderful profession that allows me to be able to work part-time when I need to."

"Sometimes when we're in special sessions, I'll get back on a Friday at noon and I'll go ahead and close the pharmacy and then work on Saturday," she said. Lately, she noted, Texas has held "many special sessions."

Van de Putte said pharmacists and legislators have a lot in common. Pharmacists, she said, "listen to people and then . . . help those folks make decisions to improve their quality of life. That's the same thing you do as a legislator."

She added that her pharmacy background helps her to critically evaluate ideas that are presented to legislators.

"If somebody's a proponent of something, they can easily sway a survey or a study. And so I ask . . . how the study was done so that I can evaluate the quality of the data," she said. "You can only make good public policy on the basis of good data."

Waiting in the wings. This November, Texas pharmacist Paul Gibbs, a Democrat, faces Republican incumbent Craig Estes in a race to represent Texas Senate District 30. Estes took office after a 2001 special election to fill the seat of Republican Tom Haywood, who died in office.

"I'm running as a Democrat in one of the most conservative, if not the most conservative, districts in the state," Gibbs said of his campaign. "I just take it a day at a time and try to do what's right, and if it works out, it does. If not, live to fight another day."

Gibbs currently serves as mayor of Nocona, Texas, and has also held positions on Nocona's city council.

"I just enjoy being involved, and I certainly enjoy the political process," Gibbs said. "It's gratifying, a lot like pharmacy, because you meet a lot of people."

In addition to his position as mayor, Gibbs owns his family's community pharmacy and manages a pharmacy consulting business that works with nursing homes and institutional pharmacies. He said his pharmacy background can be a political asset because the profession is associated with honesty, and people tend to be comfortable speaking with their pharmacist.

"Everybody has a pharmacist," Gibbs said. "We are the people that deal with the most critical human needs, and that's our health."

Gibbs, the underdog in the race, is relying on his experience as a local leader to convince voters that he is the best man for the job.

As mayor, Gibbs explained, he deals with "everyday issues: quality of life, water, sewer, streets . . . [the] nuts and bolts foundation of society."

"My whole crux to my campaign is, can you expect to be a good legislator if you don't understand how your legislation affects the local and county officials," he said. Gibbs said his opponent "has never served at these levels."

"I don't see how you can make legislation affecting these people without understanding what they go through on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Into the ring. Kim Zeitler Robbins, pharmacy manager at Happy Harry's Discount Drug Stores in Harrington, Delaware, chose this year to fulfill a lifelong dream of running for political office—specifically, a seat in Delaware House District 30. The seat became open after Republican G. Robert Quillen announced his retirement at the end of his current term.

Robbins, a Democrat, won the endorsement of her party at the local, county, and state levels and expected to avoid running in the state's September 11 primary. But a late bid for office by Harrington mayor and funeral home owner Earl Price forces a competition between the two candidates to decide which will face Republican Bobby Outten in the November general election.

Robbins, who just finished a term as president of the Delaware Pharmacists Society (DPS), said the current House membership includes only one person with a health care background—a nurse who is not in practice.

Her work with DPS included pushing for legislation to improve pharmacy practice. "The legislators, when I went up to work a bill for pharmacy, they had no clue" about the issues, Robbins said. "We need somebody up there who gets it and can teach [legislators] in little small bites."

She said her name recognition as a community pharmacist is a plus when she campaigns door-to-door.

"My campaign manager is just absolutely floored when I go and knock on a door and people go, 'Hey, Kim—how ya doing?'" Robbins said. "She's just absolutely floored at the number of people that I know. And it's because of my pharmacy background."

If she makes it to the General Assembly, Robbins plans to focus on health care, agriculture, and education. One goal is to help seniors understand how they will be affected by the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003.

"I have spoken to so many senior groups about this Medicare change because people are just confused," Robbins said. "It's fallen on the pharmacist to inform people" about the law.

Robbins advised any pharmacist who considers a run for office to "surround yourself with good people, people who know campaigning."

She said she is enjoying her first run for state office: "I am having a ball. I am loving this."