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Washington State Dental Association

Meet Mellani McAleenan

Mellani McAleenan was recently named vice president of government affairs for the Washington State Dental Association. She has an impressive resume, including work at Alcoa, the Association of Washington Business, and, most recently, the Office of Judicial & Legislative Relations for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Olympia, where she served as an associate director.

McAleenan, an attorney and lobbyist, brings her many years of experience in the halls of Olympia to the WSDA at a crucial time. Our work finding appropriate alternative solutions to midlevel providers and corporate practices continues unabated and will require a deft touch. For our part, we’re changing up our game by having McAleenan work in Olympia full time during the legislative session and only part time in Seattle when the Legislature is not in session. As she says, “Physical presence matters."

McAleenan explains why being in Olympia full time when the Legislature is in session is imperative. “I’ve spent so much of my career with the Legislature, and it has been drilled into me since I started in the business that when legislators are in session, you need to be available to them,” she says. “The only way to do that is to be physically present in Olympia. They expect quick responses, which means you check your email at 9 p.m. because a legislator might need information for a hearing at 9 a.m. the following morning. I try to make an effort to have certain hours when I step away from it because I need a work/life balance, but during the session it’s practically nonstop.”

Will some of this be driven by whether we have pending legislation? McAleenan says not really, explaining, “My personal style is to be there regardless. I want to make sure I’m available, and there’s immeasurable give and take that comes from simply having hallway conversations with people. There may not be an actual bill pending, but legislators and aides may see you and have a question they need an answer to. If you’re not there, you can’t take advantage of that moment. If there are bills pending that you’re supporting or opposing, you’ll spend a lot more time communicating those issues. But even when there isn’t something pending, there’s tremendous value in just being around.” McAleenan plans to keep her WSDA team cohesive by developing a logistical plan that allows all government affairs-related work to flow smoothly through the telecommuting process. “Most of us telecommute to a certain extent in our jobs already,” she says, “so the idea shouldn’t be foreign. We walk around with our offices on our phones.”

The WSDA was introduced to McAleenan by our team of lobbyists – Trent House, Brad Tower, and Carrie Tellefson – whom we’d asked for recommendations. All three enthusiastically named McAleenan, whom they had worked with at AWB or knew of her stellar reputation in the Capitol. Tellefson says, “She’s politically savvy, straightforward, smart. You can always count on her for her follow-through, and she’s a top-notch lobbyist. I first met her at AWB working on healthcare issues. No matter what she’s done, she’s maintained a high level of credibility and professionalism. She’s got the work ethic of a great lobbyist. If the Legislature is working, she’ll be there, too. She’s visible, keeps an eye on things, and she’s always available. She’s the whole package, and she’s got an incredible reputation.”

Attorney at law

Although we had considered hiring an attorney to fill the position before, McAleenan was the first one who fit the bill so perfectly, given her breadth of experience in Olympia. What are the advantages of having an attorney as our lobbyist? “Law school trains you to think differently,” McAleenan explains. “You have a lot of background in how to read and write laws, how the courts interpret laws, the importance of drafting, and how grammar is important. But you also learn negotiating skills and spend a lot of time learning how to prevent going to court. With the legislative process, the negotiation skills are essentially the same.”

McAleenan says that being an attorney gives her insight into how a court might interpret a law once it is passed, and what it considers to be appropriate or applicable legislative history, versus what we may think it is as we’re creating it. “A law degree is helpful because it’s easy to develop a very narrow focus and just work toward one goal, but lawyers are trained to look at things from all angles. We’re trained to look for the worst-case scenario while simultaneously seeking ways to prevent it,” she says. “By starting with that perspective, you can plan to try to mitigate it, which makes the drafting process more clear to begin with. The words on the paper have to lay out exactly what you want the outcome to be, not what you hope it will be.”

WSDA lobbyist Brad Tower agrees, adding, “Being an attorney will help her because drafting is one of those tasks at the heart of the process, and I’ve always felt that attorneys are best suited to understanding the nuances of the language. It’s easy to make general arguments, but it is hard to capture the essence of the arguments in a precise way. More importantly, though, she’s generally regarded as smart, hardworking, and very pleasant. In Olympia, it’s crucial that people like you, otherwise it makes communicating difficult, and she’s well-liked. She is in the prime of her career, and I am excited personally to work with her. She understands that Olympia isn’t just a vocation, it’s a community, and she is a part of that community. I trust her judgment and I’m glad she’s on board.”

Perhaps more important are her 16 years of experience working in Olympia on a daily basis, McAleenan says. That time has given her an understanding of where the hot points are, what comes next, how to stop something, and what to do if it comes out anyway. “That experience,” she says, “has as much or more value than any law degree.”

Mending fences, educating members

WSDA’s positions on some issues in Olympia have generated frustration with legislators on both sides of the aisle. This frustration may complicate McAleenan’s role, but she’s not particularly concerned. “My goal has always been to make sure that even if people didn’t agree with the position that I was taking on behalf of a client, they could still like me as a person, trust me as a valued source of information, and know that I would conduct myself with integrity and honesty,” she says. “I will never try to trick or manipulate people because my reputation is the most important thing that I have, and I jealously guard it. It has served me well.”

McAleenan is proud to say that she’s been on the opposite side of issues with legislators with whom she has maintained excellent working relationships. She’ll bring that same approach to the WSDA, and she’s looking forward to introducing our members to some of the legislators they didn’t have access to before. “I think it will be a good opportunity to expand relationships with the new people I bring to the table,” she says.

Another part of her job will be to teach our members, as well as legislators, that while there may be a difference of opinion in terms of how we reach them, the goals of all the parties are remarkably similar. “I think it’s important to remind people that there are no good guys or bad guys, no white hats versus black. Everyone ultimately has the same goal — to provide access to the best care possible for the most people possible. When you consider that everyone is actually trying to get to the same place, there should be a way to figure out the right means to get there. That’s sometimes easier said than done, but that’s how I would like to tackle this.”

McAleenan is equally excited about the educational aspects of her position here, such as bringing people up to speed on civics, demystifying Olympia and how it works, and understanding political strategy. “Olympia can be a really confusing place. Most of the rules are only applicable when they want them to be – deadlines, for example. Nearly every rule can be waived, depending on the circumstances. Very little in Olympia is black and white, or step by step, but understanding the processes and when they apply are very important.” McAleenan wants members to be comfortable navigating Olympia, testifying on bills, and understanding how important managing expectations can be. She explains, “We don’t want people to get discouraged, but they also need to have a clear understanding of what is possible, and how what may be possible in the future might not be possible now, so understanding the strategic value of timing can be key.”

The good news is that McAleenan is well prepared to tackle all aspects of her role here. She understands that dentists are busy business owners who want professional lobbyists to cover their interests in the Capitol, and she’s already rolled up her sleeves and started the task. The work is demanding and sometimes thankless, and the rules of engagement in Olympia can be brutal, but McAleenan is thick-skinned. Don’t forget: She cut her teeth in this environment. “I’ve had people come up to me and yell and scream completely inappropriately, where in any other environment it wouldn’t be acceptable behavior, but you have to accept it because you have to maintain a good working relationship with them. Some delight in their bad behavior, and others are simply falling to the stress and pressure of Olympia. Tensions can run high, and people tend to get short with one another. You can see it in everyone, I think. The long hours, stress, and pressure come home to roost. There’s always some point in the session where they have stumped me by doing something in an unexpected way. Then you have to figure out how to recalculate accordingly. But the good thing about that is that I know it isn’t just me. Others have said the same thing. There’s always a twist you didn’t expect."

Hitting the road

How does McAleenan balance the hurly burly of Olympia? For one, she travels around the country with her husband, Mike, as he races his BMW M3. Nationally ranked, he began racing on a lark and now spends many weekends at the track, with McAleenan happily along for support. She likes the racing culture because the people are united by the sport and have an authenticity about them. “The group ranges from people who cobble together enough money for a race here and there to people who race at a professional level with semi trucks, multiple cars, and onsite mechanics,” she says. “Even though they’re competing against each other, they all help out anytime someone has a problem. I like the camaraderie of racing. There are even a few female racers, and they’ve been accepted into group like any other.”

When she’s not traveling with her husband, McAleenan is out with their dog, Auggie, or donating her time as a board member for the Prison Pet Partnership. The partnership is a program in the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash., where inmates rescue and train homeless dogs as service animals for people with disabilities, and operate a boarding and grooming facility. McAleenan hopes to take up painting this year, too.

Mellani McAleenan is an outstanding addition to the WSDA. Please take a moment to welcome her aboard!

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