Commission nominee withdraws after racism accusation revived

Eichler's 2006 comments about Bush dental care were widely criticized as racist.

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 5, 2012 

JUNEAU -- Gov. Sean Parnell's nominee to a position on the Alaska Public Offices Commission abruptly withdrew his name Thursday morning just as senators were poised to grill him about comments he made in 2006 that were widely slammed as racist toward Alaska Natives.

David Eichler, a North Pole dentist, was picked by Parnell's administration from a list of four people submitted by the Alaska Republican Party. The bipartisan commission enforces the state's campaign finance, lobbying and office-holder disclosure laws.

In 2006, while head of the Alaska Dental Society, Eichler proposed a kind of Darwinian theory related to his belief that unchecked tooth decay in Bush Alaska amounted to child abuse.

"Any culture that allows such disease will soon disappear and rightfully so," he wrote. He also urged the end of federal assistance to America's indigenous peoples, saying that to do so would "allow their integration into American society as dignified citizens."

At the time, the dental organization was in the middle of a legal and political battle with Native health organizations over whether dental therapists could do some tasks reserved for fully licensed dentists, such as drilling and pulling teeth. The Native health groups complained that the Bush was ill served by dentists who were behaving like a restrictive guild with a stranglehold monopoly, while dentists complained that the therapists weren't qualified.

Eichler's comments appeared in a discussion forum for leaders of state associations but were leaked to the Daily News, among other organizations. As his comments filtered out, Eichler apologized for being "offensive and insensitive." His term with the dental association expired in October 2006.

Eichler's nomination was to be considered by the Senate State Affairs Committee but chairman Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said his name was no longer on the agenda. Wielechowski said the committee had been prepared to grill Eichler on his 2006 comments.

Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Parnell, said Eichler withdrew himself from consideration during a phone call Thursday morning initiated by the governor's office.

A woman who answered the phone at Eichler's dental office in North Pole said he didn't come to work Thursday. She said she would get a message to him but he didn't return the call.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, the Alaska Native Health Board and at least three other Native organizations condemned Eichler's nomination in letters and messages sent to Juneau in advance of the Senate hearing and another in the House.

"The APOC oversees the fairness and integrity of the public voting process," wrote Jason Metrokin, president and chief executive of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., in a letter to Parnell that was copied to legislators. "Dr. Eichler's past comments in reference to rural dental health were insensitive and uneducated. We are concerned that his biases about Native people will carry over into his policy decisions, thereby undermining public and certainly Native people's confidence in the impartiality of APOC practices and decision making."

Patrick Anderson, executive director of Chugachmiut, the Anchorage-based tribal organization serving Chugach-area Natives, said he was personally offended by Eichler's remarks.

"As a father of 3 Native children, an attorney for over 30 years, an executive and statewide community leader, I find Dr. Eichler's comments mean spirited, petty and totally uniformed," he wrote. "I have been, currently am and will continue to be a proud and 'dignified' American citizen."

Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon and a member of the Senate State Affairs Committee, said Eichler's withdrawal was the appropriate outcome, especially in light of all the other issues facing the Legislature as it grinds toward adjournment.

"We didn't want to have a fight -- we didn't want to have to expend energy in trying to make sure that he didn't get appointed," Kookesh said outside the hearing room.

Kookesh, co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said Eichler's remarks "were very disrespectful and I can't condone them -- I can't keep silent about them. As an Alaska Native, whether or not I'm state senator, whether or not I'm a chairman of AFN, as an Alaska Native I should be offended and I should say something about it."

The comments by the Native groups follow publication Wednesday in the Anchorage blog Mudflats that largely reprinted the 2006 Daily News story and questioned whether the governor's office had bothered to search Eichler's name on the Internet before submitting him for confirmation.

Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman, said the two people who handle appointments "vet between 500-750 applications a year. As part of the vetting process they check to make sure the applicant is qualified under statute to serve on the board or commission he or she is applying for. They interview the candidate and check references. They Google them and also check sources including CourtView, Sex offender registry, Motznik, Facebook, Twitter, Periodicals for op eds and/or letters to the editor," she wrote in an email.

Laws governing selection for the public offices commission require the governor to pick from four names submitted by each of the top two political parties in the state.

In addition to Eichler, the Republican Party of Alaska submitted Lynn Levengood, Sue Gaston and Kevin Clarkson, Leighow said.

Leighow said the governor's office would contact the Republican Party Thursday about another nominee.

Republican state chairman Randy Ruedrich didn't return messages left on his office and mobile phone.


Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 907-500-7388.

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