Dr. Politician: Physician Candidates Foster Healthy Political Debate

  Texas Medicine Logo(1)  

Trusted Leader - September 2006  

By  Larry BeSaw

Arlington obstetrician-gynecologist Robert Cluck, MD, learned a hard lesson when he moved from the delivery room to City Hall.

"When I was a physician, if something needed to be done, I just did it. Here, I've got to get four people to agree with me. It was tough for me to learn the concept that I had to convince four other people that my idea was good. I never won a vote the first year I was on the city council because I still had my doctor's hat on. But it's been good for me because I've learned how to do that, how to build enthusiasm and get people to come along for the ride for a vision we have."

Evidently he learned the lesson well, because he's Mayor Cluck now. After four years on the city council, he handily beat the eight-term incumbent mayor in 2003, "perhaps because I was so well known in the city for having delivered so many babies for many years."

He's now trying to deliver a better city to the people of Arlington by using his medical training to educate the citizens about what they need to do to improve their health. For instance, he's launched a citywide CPR education campaign.

Dr. Cluck, vice president for medical affairs at Arlington Memorial Hospital, says his biggest accomplishment is presiding over the city's tremendous business growth, including a new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys.

He's also working to convince voters to approve a mass transit system. Arlington, with 360,000 residents, is the largest city in the country without one. It's a tough sell. Voters have rejected a bus system three times, a fact Dr. Cluck calls his biggest disappointment as mayor.

Dr. Cluck is one of many Texas physicians treating their communities' political health as well as their physical health by holding local public office. Their motivation for holding office is varied. Dr. Cluck is filling the void of not being able to practice medicine after 24 years because of injuries from a motorcycle accident. For former Texas Medical Association President Tom Hancher, MD, it was a desire to improve the schools in his hometown. And Houston City Council Member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, MD, is carrying on her late husband's dream.

But whatever the motivation, physicians have become trusted leaders and are bringing the same passion and dedication they have for caring for their patients to local school boards, courthouses, and city hall. 

Unrolling the Sidewalks  

When Dr. Hancher returned to his hometown of Columbus to practice medicine in 1976, he was shocked to discover the children were still using the same schools he had attended in the 1950s.

"The schools had deteriorated a fair amount and needed some changes," he recalled. "I had a young family, and I wanted my children to have adequate facilities to go to school in. At times, you have to take matters into your own hands if you feel strongly about an issue and try to convince the public that this is the direction you want to take."

After winning a school board seat, he set about convincing the community to build a new elementary school. The first bond issue failed. Undeterred, Dr. Hancher paid for newspaper ads out of his own pocket to urge approval of a second bond issue.

It passed, but it wasn't easy. He not only had to persuade the voters, but he also had to convince his fellow board members. And, he had to compromise.

"Many people, even some board members, opposed raising taxes to pay for the bond issue. So they scaled back plans to present a united front, and the day they moved in, the school was too small. Those two school board members have told me how much they regret their opposition."

After three years on the board, Dr. Hancher devoted full time to his internal medicine and geriatrics practice. But in 1995, he set his sights on the mayor's office. The future of the town was at stake because, he says, Columbus "for years had an ultra-conservative philosophy that we don't want any new folks or new jobs in town. We just did not want to face the future, but rather look to the past. That type of philosophy had to be broken, and it had to start at the top."

Dr. Hancher campaigned for progress and change against two other candidates, one of them a former mayor. He won by two votes.

"It was a turning point for the community. We embraced a philosophy of developing, for example, a business park outside of town. We unrolled the sidewalks and left them out and kept the welcome sign out 24/7."    

He was unopposed in the next election, but did not seek a third term because of his increasing involvement in TMA affairs.

His work on behalf of the community came at a price, however.

"I had a little less free time, and my schedule was pretty tight, but as I look back on the years, I feel it was worth doing. I certainly would do it again." 

Carrying On  

Dr. Sekula-Gibbs had to make a decision after her husband, Houston television news anchor Sylvan Rodriguez, died of pancreatic cancer. Should she resume the dermatology practice she had cut back on to be by his side or run for a seat on the city council?

Her running for the council was an idea they had discussed when Sylvan realized his illness ended his dream of running for Congress. He suggested she run in his place. Her first reaction was negative, because unlike Sylvan, the voters did not know her, and she needed to learn more about the political process. She suggested starting with the city council. He warned her that local politics are rough. "I did not know exactly what he meant," she said. "I do now."

After he died, she decided to run. "I figured it was that time or never."

Dr. Sekula-Gibbs won that 2001 election to an at-large seat over six other candidates. She has worked to improve the city's health ever since on a "Healthy Houston" platform.

"There were a lot of unmet needs in the health care arena because no physician had ever served on the Houston City Council before," she said. "It really is a golden opportunity to bring attention to health care."

She's been successful in increasing the number of federally qualified health centers in the Houston area from one to 10 by helping to establish the Healthy Houston Foundation to bring in local matching money.

She also was instrumental in the city council's passage of an ordinance banning smoking in restaurants. She's not finished with that issue. "The next step is to eliminate smoking in all workplaces."

Dr. Sekula-Gibbs' council career will end in 17 months; term limits prevent her from running again. She's now taking Sylvan up on his suggestion that she run for Congress. She's running to replace former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

She urges other physicians to get involved in local politics. If fact, she hopes another Houston doctor will succeed her on the council. 


Why You Should Run for Office

Is there something about physicians that makes them better candidates for public office than other professionals? Three physicians who have entered the political fray think that might be true.

"Physicians, because of their unique training, have proven themselves capable of both leadership and in-depth analysis of complex problems and can come up with an objective solution instead of an emotional one," said former Texas Medical Association President Tom Hancher, MD, who served as a school board member and mayor in Columbus.

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck, MD, agrees, citing three reasons. "First, they're not afraid of the work. Being a physician is hard work and you have to be tireless."

Second, he says, is that "physicians tend to pay very careful attention to detail and you have to do that also, especially as mayor, or something bad can happen."

Finally, he says the perseverance physicians demonstrate in surviving the rigors of medical school, internship, and residency gives them the strength to see issues through to the end.

Houston City Council Member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, MD, adds another reason. "Doctors contribute more than medical expertise. We're small business owners."

One of the most important positions a physician can hold in his or her community is membership on the local school board, Dr. Hancher believes.

"Serving on a school board is especially important, because after all, physicians are often some of the most educated people in the community. With so many years of education, they're well familiar with different educational systems, and they recognize academic excellence and how to achieve it."

That's critical, he says, "when it appears the school board is taking a path that doesn't appear to lead to academic and physical excellence of the students. We as physicians recognize that you cannot have a healthy, growing, stimulated mind without a healthy, growing, stimulated body. Physicians can bring all of those perspectives to the school board."

Being a physician-politician can affect your medical practice. It might bring you some patients; it also might cost you some if they disagree with your position on a controversial issue. Or, they might feel neglected.

 "I think when you take a stand, some people are not going to appreciate the stand that you've taken," Dr. Hancher said. "I know I lost at least one patient who said to me that she didn't see how I could possibly spend enough time with her when I was both a physician and mayor, so she moved to another physician."

Has Dr. Sekula-Gibbs lost any patients because of her political career?

"I suspect there are a lot of people who think I just couldn't possibly be available to take care of them because I'm often in the news talking about city issues."

Finally, Dr. Cluck has some advice for would-be physician-politicians: Put the interests of your community ahead of any personal political gain.

"To be a good mayor, you have to not worry about the politics." Being a successful local leader "takes a type of person who can get the politics out of decisions and make the ones that are best for the community." 

September 2006 Texas Medicine Contents
Texas Medicine Main Page