Ashley Anderson

THE TASTE OF DEFEAT (unlike fluoride) is palpable and familiar, by now, for the city's pro-fluoridation factions. Portland has now rejected fluoridating its water supply four times—in 1956, 1962, 1980, and now, once more, in 2013.

This time around, the rejection of a controversial tooth-decay treatment deemed safe and effective by all reputable public health agencies was as convoluted and angry as any in Portland's history.

When the dust settled, fluoridation opponents had claimed an unsurprising victory based on early returns on Tuesday, May 21, that had fluoridation losing 61 percent to 39 percent. Portland remains the largest American city not to fluoridate its drinking water.

Supporters of Clean Water Portland, at a jubilant bash at a sports bar, claimed it as a victory for a body of science and rhetoric casting fluoride as an ineffective poison that would hurt the kids that fluoride supporters say they want to help. Rick North, a longtime veteran of the city's fluoride wars, said, "That message is what put us over the top."

But volunteer KC Hanson told the celebrating crowd earlier that the vote also marked an opportunity for rapprochement after a hard-fought, occasionally nasty campaign.

"There are good people who believe perfectly the opposite of what we did," she says. "As a community, as Portland, we need to come together. I know you guys will."

Fluoride's supporters, among them Commissioner Steve Novick, attended a bustling, but utterly music-free affair at Curious Comedy Theater. They'd known for days the polling didn't look good, and the early results didn't come as a surprise.

"We really took it to them," Alejandro Queral, a program officer for major fluoride supporter Northwest Health Foundation told cheering supporters. "Obviously we will leave here a bit dissatisfied, and I hope we do. Because the work is not done yet."

Tuesday's off-year ballot had other important issues. The five-year renewal of Portland's Children's Levy, which funds programs for low-income kids, had a big lead in early returns. A ballot measure that would give Metro the money it needs to actually spruce up the open land it owns, was also ahead.

But fluoride was clearly the main attraction and center of gravity.

The furor started last year, after an ordinance to fluoridate the city's water—pushed by advocates and backed by then-Commissioner Randy Leonard—came before city council after meetings kept off official city calendars. By the time commissioners unanimously said yes in September, the debate was fully engulfed.

Fluoride opponents, ever-effective at stoking support, had no trouble collecting the signatures to refer the matter to voters in May 2014. But city council wanted an earlier vote, putting it instead on this month's ballot.  

The months that followed have marked one of the more lively debates in recent political history—replete with sign-stealing shenanigans, accusations of dirty dealing and comment-choked online discussion threads.

On the "no" side, Occupy Portland anarchists found themselves working side-by-side with campaign operatives more familiar with pro-business right-wing endeavors. Opposition sprang not from conspiracy theorists who saw the specter of a Communist plot but from organic moms and libertarians who were afraid their water would be tainted or who hated the idea that people opposed to fluoride couldn't choose. Others thought the city's process was undemocratic.

It was maddening for supporters who accused opponents of wielding junk science and myth while working with some of the state's most important Democratic operatives in a campaign that cleaved Portland's traditional liberal base.

"The reasons may be very different," says Portland veteran pollster Tim Hibbitts, "but at the end of the day, what you've got is a coalition of folks you'd normally not find together on many other issues."

The money favored pro-campaign group Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland heavily. It raised more than $877,000 according to the most recent reports on the Oregon Secretary of State's website. And it spent most, including, as Willamette Week first reported, on community organizations identified with people of color. Clean Water Portland tapped a national anti-fluoride movement for donations, but raised only $280,000. Their power came from volunteers.

So many, says Mike BlueHair, an Occupy stalwart, that Clean Water Portland couldn't keep track of them.

"I'd call them and tell them people were passing out signs in 19-foot U-haul trucks," he says. "They didn't even know people were doing it."

Says Hibbitts: "When you've got something that's not a lopsided division to begin with, and one side has the vast majority of passion on this issue, it's huge benefit to that side. You can't make up 20 or 30 points with passion, but you can easily make up 5 to 10 points."

Local publications that came out in support of Measure 26-151—and every newspaper in town did, and strongly—were accused of taking bribes or being in bed with corporate interests. Attention from national media outlets, ramping up in the past few days, mainly focused on why Portland continues to shrug off accepted public-health policy.

One big hit, especially to the assertion that fluoridation would help minority kids, came when the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter came out against the measure.

Fluoride proponents were also forced to alter their rhetoric a bit in the final weeks before the election, after the Oregon Health Authority released results of its most-recent study of schoolchildren's teeth.

While pro-fluoride folks had talked of Oregon's worsening dental health crisis, the 2012 "Smile Survey" showed modest improvements in many children.

The new study showed 52 percent of Oregon children between six and nine years old experienced cavities, down from 64 percent in 2007 and 57 percent in 2002. Untreated cavities were less prevalent, too (though decay was more likely in poor and rural schoolchildren, and cavities increased among black and Asian students).

Proponents said the results still showed alarming cavity rates in Multnomah County—worse than Seattle and the nation as a whole. Opponents accused them of manufacturing a crisis, and colluding with state workers to withhold the study.

It was one more thing that proved hard to swallow for Portland voters, who were either virulently opposed to fluoride, or skeptical enough and overwhelmed with the back and forth that they couldn't bring themselves to say yes.

Novick, who sat nursing a cocktail at the pro-fluoride party, summed up the results tersely.

"It's sad," he said. "Sad."