"Dams and salmon are important, but what about saving people?"
Jim Camden - Staff writer
Spokane _ Brenda Gildehaus wonders if Washington state politicians could focus for a while on something other than federal dams on the Snake River.
"Dams and salmon are important, but what about saving people," asked Gildehaus, who attended a press conference Monday overlooking the Spokane River at which Democrats accused Republicans of political posturing on the dams.
A former champion BMX bike rider before multiple sclerosis began to rob her of the use of her limbs, Gildehaus said she'd like to hear more about federal programs to improve health care. She'd like Congress to pass a national Patients Bill of Rights, and mandate that doctors, not insurance companies, decide a patient's care.
Valley resident Gildehaus supports Democrats Maria Cantwell and Tom Keefe, who are trying to unseat Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. George Nethercutt. So she was there in the crowd when Keefe and Cantwell joined two other Democrats, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton, in criticizing the GOP's focus on dams.
Gorton and Nethercutt have both made protecting the dams a centerpiece of their campaigns. At a rally last month in Spokane, GOP presidential nominee George Bush vowed the dams would never come down if he is elected, and dared Al Gore to match that promise.
Instead, Gore said he would convene a "salmon summit" to get all sides affected by the issue to work out an agreement that keeps the dams in place.
"If you listen to the Republicans and their ads, the only issue out there is the dam issue," Murray said. "All of us agree that the dams should not come down."
Both sides agree the federal government should do everything possible to change conditions that are causing the fish to decline so that removing the dams isn't even considered.
Gorton, Murray, Nethercutt and Dicks all serve on appropriations committees that decide how the federal government spends money. All four said they would not approve any money to breach the Snake River dams.
There are some differences between the two parties, although the average voter might find them minor. For example, Gorton and Nethercutt believe the federal government should never spend money studying dam breaching. Murray said prohibiting such studies could prompt a federal judge to step in and say any decision on salmon was not based on sound science.
Although they denounced demagoguery and called for bipartisanship on the dams, the Democrats couldn't avoid a few pointed political references of their own.
"These dams were built by Democrats," said Murray, noting that former Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington helped steer money to his home state to pay for their construction. "And they're going to stay because of Democrats."
Although they called for the campaign to focus on broader issues, each speaker at the press conference made some reference to the dams.
Cantwell did point out Gildehaus in the crowd, and mentioned her struggle with her insurance carrier to receive rehabilitation services.
But in the end, talk of dams took up most of the speakers' time and the few questions from the news media.
After most politicians had left for their next event, Gildehaus sat in her wheelchair and talked about her struggle to receive care that doctors have said she needs but the insurance company says she doesn't.
Congress needs to find a way to let the doctors, not the accountants, decide treatment, she said.
A mother and coach as well as a former champion athlete, Gildehaus clearly didn't want to sound selfish or critical of the Democrats who had been behind the podium.
She just articulated their point better than any of them did, that the election should cover a wide array of topics, from lowering drug costs to better schools.
"There are a lot of issues that come down to taking care of people and
being heard," she said.