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Headshot of Dr. Cindy Pauley

WSDA President Dr. Cindy Pauley

Learn more about new WSDA President Dr. Cindy Pauley.
Newly elected WSDA President Dr. Cindy Pauley is a force of nature. She is outspoken and fearless in her passion for the profession of dentistry, according to those who know her best. Since joining the WSDA Board of Directors in 2014, she has proven to be all that and more. With a keen intellect, engaging sense of humor, and the innate ability to quickly break down issues and get to the heart of the matter, she has demonstrated that she’s not afraid to roll up her sleeves and work hard to get things done. Her steely determination to affect change is as evident today as it was two decades before, when she first made her presence known in organized dentistry. 

Just as importantly, she’s an engaging team player who shares the spotlight freely. During our interview, she reminded us several times that without the help of colleagues, board members, and WSDA staff, the work could not have gotten done. 

And while all those superlatives apply to Pauley in their own way, none tell the whole story. Colleagues, friends, and legislators were happy to sing her praises and share stories about her. Dr. Amy Winston said, “Cindy has many great qualities, so it is impossible to pick just one. I would say her ability to strategize is unparalleled. I’m impressed with her ability to play out every scenario with contingency plans. This enables her to create thoughtful, well-organized plans. She makes decisions rationally, rather than impulsively. She’d make a great political strategist!” Likewise, Pauley’s friend Rep. Michelle Caldier was eager to talk about her, saying, “Cindy is one of the kindest, most brilliant people I know, and she’s a fantastic mom to her two boys. She doesn’t take credit when she deserves it, preferring to remain behind the scenes. I think that is one of her leadership styles. Some people like to be in the limelight, but she’s more of a team builder. She wants to make sure that the credit is distributed equally. As she often says, ‘A high tide raises all boats.’ There are other people who might put people down so that they can get ahead, and she’s the exact opposite. She’s great at relationship building. She can make friends with anyone, from any walk of life. I really believe that quality is something that helps with team building, with her ability to be a great leader.” 

Getting started

After graduating from the University of Washington, Pauley attended dental school at the University of the Pacific (now the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry) in San Francisco, and began practicing dentistry in 1992. She loves interacting with patients, watching families grow, and being an important part of people’s lives. “Every day you get to mix and mingle with 20 to 25 people, and most of those relationships are very positive and fulfilling,” she explained. “Recently, one of my patients told me, ‘I’ve been through two wives, four dogs, and five jobs, but only one dentist.’ I feel like there is a certain tie-in to both the community and to my friends. I see patients who were friends in high school, and even some from my elementary school days! I have patients who have been my friends since the fourth grade, and now I’m seeing their kids off to college. I love dentistry and doing good work, cosmetic dentistry being my favorite. But the most meaningful part of my job, and without a doubt the thing that I would miss the most, is my relationship with my patients.” 

Hitting the ground running at the WSDA

Since joining the Board of Directors, Pauley has been a vocal proponent of key issues facing the WSDA, including challenging Delta Dental’s governance issues, honing its relationships with key legislators in Olympia, and fine-tuning the work of the Board to include strategic objectives that will better the organization, all while being open to new ideas and different perspectives. As her friend and colleague Dr. Bill Hooe said, “She is unflinching and not easily intimidated, and she’s going to need that as we move forward with our challenges with Delta. She has the fortitude and intellect, and I think she’ll do really well. She is one of the smartest people I have met, her powers of deduction are superb, and all of that is tempered by her compassion. She really cares about the person at the other end. Whether it’s the dentist being jerked around by the insurance provider, or the patient in the chair, her priorities are set wonderfully. Her best qualities are that she’s smart and driven, but even with all of the stress, she always has a sense of humor about it, and is generous with her laugh, which is infectious.” 

Pauley has been involved in organized dentistry since she first graduated from dental school. She has been a delegate to WSDA for over 20 years. She served on the Seattle-King County Dental Society’s Executive Council for more than a decade, and on the board of the Seattle-King County Dental Society Foundation, eventually serving as President of both. She was also on the WSDA’s Committee on PNDC, and helped found the Washington Oral Health Foundation. When she made the decision to run for the WSDA Board, she knew it would be a commitment of both time and energy. The Board was active and had done a lot of good work. Pauley saw it was the right time for teamwork that included fresh ideas, strong collaboration, and some new approaches. She knew she could help with these changes, support them, and work hard to see them through.

You see, since she was a very young girl, dentistry has literally been her life. Her mother and uncle were dentists, she married a dentist, and now her two children hope to become dentists. She decided to run for the Board, she said, to help preserve the future of dentistry for them. 

Growing up in dentistry

Pauley grew up in Irvine, Calif., and Medina, Wash. The family was in Irvine while her father, Gil, got his PhD. (He later became a UW professor and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) Early in her father’s career, they moved often to accommodate his ascent with the federal government. Her parents were from Washington and had attended UW, where her mother, Pat, earned a degree in home economics. When they moved back to Washington, her mother couldn’t find a teaching job (most schools were cutting out home economics programs). Her father saw an article in the UW newsletter that said the dental school was making a concerted effort to recruit women. They both thought that sounded like a career fit for her. With his and their daughter’s support, she went for it. Soon after, her mother returned to school to fulfill her science requirements. The following year she was accepted into the UW School of Dentistry. “She was in the second class that fully accepted women to the school,” Pauley explained. “It’s kind of shocking that when I was 7 years old, there was really no place for women in the UWSoD, and now they make up 50 percent of the school. My mom retired seven years ago after practicing for more than 30 years, 18 of which were really great times together with me.” They were the first mother-daughter practice in Washington state in 1992.

Time in the lab

Pauley was 9 years old when her mother started dental school. She was an only child, and resources were limited. “It seemed like our life was centered around her education and dental school. I would hang out with her in the lab,” Pauley said. “I got all of my dental work done at the dental school, of course, so those were the earliest times that I felt as though dentistry could be something that I would be interested in pursuing. My mother lived and breathed it, and we became committed to her education as a family.” When Pauley was 13, her mother graduated from dental school and started her own practice. She often worked side-by-side with her mother, helping in the office and performing sterilization tasks. “I always knew that I enjoyed it. That and being a lawyer. Those were the two careers I saw that interested me,” Pauley said. “I contemplated taking the LSAT, but at the end of the day, dentistry was the family business, and that had the bigger draw. My parents had continued to establish a base for me, and I decided to go into dentistry.”
Ensuring the future

After practicing in rented space across from Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Wash., for 15 years, her mother’s lease was not renewed when the owners decided to rent to only physicians. Determined to ensure that would never happen again, she found a vacant building on Bel-Red Road in Bellevue that hadn’t been utilized for years. Her parents purchased, gutted, and remodeled it. This was a leap of faith at the time (before Microsoft) because the area was largely undeveloped for professional businesses. “Of course, now the Bel-Red corridor is thriving, and everything is happening around us,” said Pauley, “but at the time that wasn’t so clear. It was a huge step financially for them, but so forward thinking. My mother had a one-woman show. Later, I was able to grow my practice next to hers because the building they purchased was huge, and the area was growing fast. When she retired, the combined practice was too much for one dentist, so my husband, Brian, who had his own lovely practice in Edmonds (Wash.), sold his practice and took over my mother’s. I feel like I have been able to stand on the shoulders of people who took some risks, and it has afforded me a really stable situation. Now my boys come into the office with us because we have a space downstairs where they can study, hang out, or get ready to be ferried to the next activity, usually by my dad.” 

In a way, life has come full circle for Pauley, as her children are now growing up inside the practice of dentistry, just as she did. “Both my boys want to be dentists, and I think that’s where I derive my passion for making sure that dentistry is still a positive and rewarding profession,” she explained. “I feel like I’m providing for their future. It makes sense since it’s the only career they’ve known their family to be part of. Even my father is involved in the practice and has been throughout the boys’ lives. He took early retirement from professorship at the University of Washington and has helped out in the business for the last 17 years, doing the deposits, dealing with vendors, and handling social media. Mom still comes in to visit and create beautiful flower arrangements every week. My dad was the one who first recognized early on the development and importance of social media for our practice. He was the first to say to my mom and I so long ago, ‘Hey, you guys need a website!’ We both looked at each other and asked him, ‘What’s a website?’” 

People often ask Pauley how it is working so closely with her husband, wondering if it ever seems too close. “Let’s face it,” she said with a laugh, “we’re not the Waltons. There are times when we all think this is a lot, but for the most part, it’s absolutely wonderful. Remember, I practiced with my mom for 18 years, my dad is there every day, so having my husband there every day was a no-brainer for me. The real question is how does my husband handle it? My mom, dad, and I were already a unit. All I had ever known was being in practice with my parents. My husband left his quiet existence in Edmonds and came into our world. He’s done an amazing job of that. From my perspective, things got easier. My mom is easy to get along with, and my husband is easier. Back then, the boys were 6 and 7, and I needed help with their schooling and after-school activities. When he took over my mother’s practice and could help out more, it was phenomenal in terms of raising our kids.”

Mother as mentor

“My mother is one of the most amazing women I have ever personally known,” Pauley said. “She never looks backward, only focuses on what she’s going to do in the future. It’s quite amazing.” Though her mom was her mentor, Pauley said they’re very different, explaining, “My brain isn’t like hers. I wish it was. She’s probably the most singularly healthy-brained individual I have ever known in my life. I’m fortunate that I can look to her for guidance and as a resource. She approaches life with such gusto, always changing, always looking forward. These days my mom has moved on and hosts her own radio show every week, focused on the art scene in the Northwest. I’m much more like my dad, a bit of a worrier, someone who examines things from multiple angles before making a decision. While those are good traits to have, I do hope that some of her adventurous outlook on life has rubbed off on me.” Time and again, Pauley’s friends told the WSDA News that she is much more like her mother than she knows. Dr. Craig Neal, who has known her for 25 years, said, “Cindy’s knowledge and understanding of the issues facing the practice of dentistry in the state of Washington is unsurpassed, and we are so lucky as dentists to have her leading our state association as president. She has devoted an enormous amount of time away from her family and practice to travel the state.”

Getting involved in dental politics

Pauley has always loved politics — the strategy, relationship building, and complexity of it. She has always been willing to go to the mat for organized dentistry. It helps that she’s a critical thinker who can easily assess a situation. Said Hooe, “Cindy can break down an issue quickly and get to the heart of the matter, and is able to explain it to others. We were working on understanding an issue the other day, and she was able to distill it down beautifully. As they say, if you can’t break something down so that you could explain it to a second-grader, then you don’t know the subject well enough. She’s been studying and learning some really heady concepts to get it down to that level, and I really appreciate that about her. Cindy’s not afraid to study and be humble, which is a great skill.” 

While Pauley has long been active on the political scene, things really took root about eight years ago, when she first realized that there were outside forces driving the profession that had no knowledge of how dentists work internally. Choices were being made about dentistry that affected patients by people who were not in the profession, nor had they ever been. “When I realized how powerful policymakers in Olympia were, that they could forever alter our profession and affect our patients’ health, that’s when I realized I had to look into it, and I had to be of help,” she said. Pauley began an organic outreach to legislators, making contacts and developing friendships in Olympia. Caldier, herself a dentist, knows first-hand about Pauley’s influence on the hill. She said, “When I ran for office and began meeting other legislators and lobbyists, Cindy was already a legend in Olympia because of the advocacy work she had done there. I heard ‘Cindy the dentist’ quite a lot. Early on, people were a little puzzled when I would show up because they were expecting Cindy. I can’t tell you how many times I had to say, ‘Nope, I’m not Cindy. There’s more than one passionate dentist out there.’”

In part, because of Pauley’s trailblazing in Olympia, there are many key WSDA members with close and important relationships with state legislators. “We have relationships that are so well-developed and robust that you can’t even look back to the way things were,” Pauley said. “We have our own resources, and they’re varied and cross party lines.” 

Applying the same principles at the WSDA

When she came to serve on the WSDA Board, Pauley knew that she wanted to affect change by applying the same principles of hard work and coalition building that had brought her so much success in Olympia. According to Neal, she is a one-woman recruitment powerhouse. “Cindy’s passion and enthusiasm have single-handedly inspired many otherwise uninvolved dentists to become active in organized dentistry,” he said.

And while Pauley takes pride in knowing that she helped lead the way to affecting change at the WSDA, she wholly acknowledges that it has been a total team effort. “Change had to come from within, including the WSDA staff,” she explained. “Everyone had to be involved. We had the good fortune of Bracken Killpack coming on board as Executive Director. He saw the need for change, too, and decided that it was not only possible, it was advantageous. A lot of good things happened around me that opened the door for a renewed look at things. We have an absolutely fantastic hard-working Board, and we’re making changes in the WSDA’s strategic direction, and I’m working with a lot of really smart people. Had it just been me wanting to do more, nothing would have changed. I feel like I was just a part of all of us taking courageous steps in a positive direction. I keep moving forward and hoping for the bright future. There is so much more to get done. I have days of tremendous optimism, and I have days when I feel like I just need a hug from my kids.”

Changes at the state level

Already, Pauley has served as the catalyst for many positive changes within the organization. From going full throttle with Delta Dental, holding it accountable to patients and trying to affect change within the insurance behemoth, to working with Killpack, key Board members, consultants, and staff to create an ambitious wireframe for change in the form of a strategic plan for the WSDA, she has helped create a lasting legacy. But Pauley isn’t finished, not by a long shot. And the truth is, the Delta fight is far from over. Once again, her supporters rally to sing her praises. Good friend Dr. Franco Audia said, “Cindy is one of the most focused individuals I know. She has grit and determination, and perseveres through even the toughest challenges.” 

The year ahead

We wondered, does Pauley have goals for the coming year, and if so, what are they? She said, “Bringing Delta back to its patient-centered focus would be a huge goal. I also want to support the big vision for the WSDA Foundation to be a major player in supporting the underserved around the state. I want to address workforce issues. With the shortages of dental auxiliary personnel, we have opportunities to come up with creative ways to address this problem. As a member of the DentPAC Board, I will continue my efforts to help make it one of the strongest PACs in Olympia. Along with that comes a continued push to make sure our interface with lawmakers is the strongest it can be. From Dental Action Day to every day in-between, we want legislators and regulators to know that no one in this state cares more about the dental health of the people of this state than the dentists of this state.” Pauley continued: “From the volunteer efforts we’re making to coordinate the work of the WSDA Foundation, to the sometimes grueling work of the strategic plan, we are doing a lot for the organization and our members. I think we are all comfortable with the idea that everything doesn’t have to happen at once. If we need to jump in with help on something like the Delta initiative, things may have to be put aside for a bit, but with the strategic plan in place, things will be picked up later. I could not be more proud of the WSDA Board and staff for diving in and working as hard as any board in the country to do great things for the membership.”

A future in politics?

After practicing for 26 years, Pauley is investigating a future outside of dentistry, and she admitted that politics would be in contention. She was a commissioner for the city of Redmond and thought about serving on the city council as well, but it takes a lot of time to be a public servant. “My boys are still young, my practice is still in full swing, and with my current commitments in organized dentistry, there are not enough hours in the day for it,” Pauley said. “In the future, however, my life is shaping up for that to be a real option. I do see it as something that I would enjoy very much.” 

As an organization, the WSDA would welcome and encourage a political dynamo like Dr. Cindy Pauley to serve and watch out for the interests of dentists in Washington state, and perhaps across the country.