Political Notebook

From death threats to holocaust warning, California vaccine bill an extraordinary fight

Polly Von Thaden mans a booth to campaign against Senate Bill 277 at the state Capitol in Sacramento in April.
Polly Von Thaden mans a booth to campaign against Senate Bill 277 at the state Capitol in Sacramento in April. rbenton@sacbee.com

After the intense hours-long hearings, after the floods of furious parents descending on the state Capitol, after a wrenching Assembly floor debate balancing public health against parental rights, Senate Bill 277 had arrived at the brink of the governor’s desk.

As Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, gave a closing Assembly floor speech, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, the bill’s oft-vilified champion, stood at the front of the chambers and watched intently, nodding along.

Opponents wearing red, the color they chose to identify themselves, looked on from the balcony. In the rear of the chambers, 7-year-old Rhett Krawitt, who became a public face for the argument of getting vaccinations to protect those who cannot because his leukemia-weakened immune system can’t handle shots, perched on his mother’s lap.

The vote flashed cross the electronic board. The final tally: 46-30 in favor.

A smile unfurled across Pan’s face. He crossed the Assembly floor to share a hug with Gonzalez and thank other members.

If the state Capitol can sometimes feel like an island of bureaucrats and politicians detached from everyday lives, SB 277 offered a counterexample. The bill, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday, galvanized a small but determined contingent of impassioned opponents who put immense pressure on lawmakers, flooded them with calls and emails, and made every committee vote an event.

At a subsequent news conference, Pan was ebullient.

“The Legislature and the Assembly today has said: ‘We’ve had enough, and we need to do something. We need to act,’” Pan said.

His Assembly counterpart was more blunt.

“I’m relieved it’s over,” Gonzalez said.

A coalition forms

Vaccination had been on the Legislature’s agenda before. In 2012, Pan pushed through Assembly Bill 2109, which required parents to consult with physicians before obtaining an exemption.

Pan’s interest in the issue stemmed from his career as a pediatrician. He worked in Philadelphia during a measles outbreak that killed nine and said he had grown increasingly alarmed by increases in cases of measles and pertussis. But he initially intended to build on AB 2109 with a bill that would have schools release information about vaccination rates. A planned tobacco tax figured to be his health care priority.

Then the Disneyland measles outbreak occurred.

As the disease spread, causing hospitalizations and grabbing headlines, terrified parents began contacting Pan and other lawmakers. For many people, the threat of illnesses like measles had ceased to be an abstraction.

“We were hearing about that all the time,” Gonzalez said. “I started hearing about it when I dropped my son off at school, when I went to the grocery store, and at a couple events just from regular constituents — ‘why is there measles?’”

She texted Pan.

Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, a first-year legislator who had contended with high vaccine opt-out rates while serving on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, also reached out to Pan. As they turned their focus to the personal belief exemption, Pan warned the freshman Allen about the fervor of the opposition he would invite, a prophesy that Allen later said was accurate.

“I think it’s difficult for people who are outside of the Capitol to know the pressure that was applied on the members of the Legislature, the difficult conversations that were had, the fear,” he said.

Also signing on was the California Medical Association, which had moved before the Disneyland outbreak to adopt a policy opposing nonmedical vaccine exemptions. Of the range of prominent institutions promoting the bill, a list that eventually grew to encompass other medical institutions and educational groups like school boards and the state PTA, the CMA would take the lead.

Pan and Allen’s offices huddled with CMA staff, and by February, lobbyist Janus Norman said, “we settled on the best way to move forward was eliminating the personal belief exemption, and we put together language.”

Opponents mass

For Sylvia Pimentel, a Granite Bay resident who has been building a network of like-minded vaccine skeptics since 2000, the word came in February after Pan and Allen held a news conference to announce the bill.

“My phone started ringing off the hook with hysterical parents sobbing, crying,” she said. “They were shocked and dismayed that this could happen in California, in America. We started getting a plan together.”

The Virginia-based National Vaccine Information Center, which tracks legislation nationwide, began informing people about the bill through an online portal. Many of them had gotten involved through the AB 2109 fight, said NVIC President Barbara Loe Fisher, estimating its California membership in the thousands: “We knew (2109) was the first step toward” SB 277, she said.

In the months to come, dissidents would inundate offices with calls and messages, so much so that some offices set up separate, dedicated phone lines. On at least one occasion, Capitol security provided Pan extra protection. Posts on his Facebook page called for him to be “eradicated” or hung by a noose.

The medical association at one point wrote a cease-and-desist demand, alleging opponents were stalking and harassing supporters’ lobbyists.

In February, the California Chiropractic Association, which monitors health care legislation, requested a meeting with Pan. They came away concluding they would need to oppose the bill because it undermined the principle of informed consent for medical procedures. The group set up a spot on its website for opponents to donate to a fund that would later pay for ads and for anti-bill expert witnesses. Concerned parents began reaching out, CCA President Brian Stenzler said.

“They said, ‘Can we work with the CCA on some strategy and to build a coalition?’ And after thinking about it and talking about it with my board we said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

‘This is a holocaust’

Sacramento is no stranger to political celebrities, but the arrival of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at an April film screening on the eve of SB 277’s first hearing marked a new development.

Hundreds filed into Sacramento’s Crest Theatre to listen to Kennedy, who has traveled the nation delivering stump speeches on the perils of vaccination and the corruption of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They watched a film, “Trace Amounts,” about the danger of vaccines.

“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy told them. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”

No legislators showed up, but Noelle Foster, a Carmichael resident who helped organize the screening, was impressed. “I thought that this is a group of people who are not going to be fooled or misled by propaganda,” she said “My thought was, ‘Wow, we have a lot of people who are paying attention and who are awake.’ ”

The next day, in what would become a familiar occurrence, red-clad parents rallied on the steps of the state Capitol before heading into the building to testify. Joni Martin left her Felton home at 5:30 a.m. for a chance to speak.

“I was really moved by how many people had taken the time to get there,” Martin said. “It was an amazing demonstration of just how bad the bill was and how troubled people were by it.”

One by one, for well over an hour, they implored Senate Health Committee members to reject the measure. Security had to eject a woman who began shouting over lawmakers.

Lawmakers ultimately advanced the bill on a 6-2 vote, although one Democrat voted no, and the committee chair, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, chided the bill’s authors for failing to adequately consult with his office.

“Both offices chose not to take any of our recommendations,” said Hernandez, who abstained from voting.

A stumble on schools

If bill supporters were caught off guard by the size and fervor of the anti-SB 277 contingent in the first committee, they were even more surprised by the crowd arriving for the second one.

“As long as I’ve been lobbying, I have not seen that much opposition be able to come two weeks in a row,” said Jodi Hicks, who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the California Academy of Family Physicians. “It was pivotal that there was such a big grass-roots effort.”

During the health committee hearing, members weighed the public health benefits of vaccines, which none of them disputed. But the Senate Education Committee presented a different dilemma: the bill’s impact on schooling. How, wondered Democrats and Republicans alike, would unvaccinated kids get an education?

They wondered if consigning children to home-schooling was fair, and questioned why the bill limited the types of home-schooling available. Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, warned the legislation was not “fully cooked.” The bill appeared to be in trouble.

“If I were you,” said Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, the committee chair, “I would not take a vote today. I would try to get answers to all of the questions that have been raised.”

Some opponents perceived a victory, believing lawmakers had echoed their concerns. Others believed Pan had been allowed to avoid a losing vote.

“People were very annoyed because it didn’t get voted on that day,” said Christina Hildebrand, founder of a group called A Voice for Choice. “They had half a glimmer of hope, but the fact that it was postponed that week was seen as, why not just vote on it?”

Bill proponents scrambled to meet with skeptical lawmakers and hammer out amendments that permitted unvaccinated children to participate in multifamily home-schools and offered school materials to children learning via independent study.

The bill passed the education panel and sailed through its next stop in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Opponents delivered piles of red carnations to legislative offices. A Senate floor vote loomed.

Despite their passion, opponents had now been defeated three times after going up against an array of prominent and respected educational and medical institutions backing SB 277.

So they did what people in Sacramento do: They hired a lobbyist, Roxanne Gould, whose other clients included Dell Inc. and Navient Solutions Inc.

“That gave me a whole new insight of what you need to do to work the system,” Hildebrand said.

It was not enough: SB 277 passed the Senate on a relatively comfortable 25-10 vote.

Fast track in the Assembly

The prospect of another protracted committee battle changed when the Assembly Rules Committee referred the bill to a sole committee. The bill would not need to navigate through the thorny questions members of the Assembly Education Committee might pose. It would need only to pass the Assembly Health Committee.

Before the hearing, opponents enlisted a formidable lobbyist. An organization called the Public Health Council hired David Quintana, a familiar face around the Capitol who lobbies on behalf of American Indian tribes. Quintana argued to The Sacramento Bee that the bill was sped through the process.

“Any time a constitutionally guaranteed right is threatened with being taken away, the legislative default position should be, ‘Hey, let’s be careful on this,’ ” Quintana said. “In this case the legislative leadership’s position was ‘full speed ahead’ … I think the way that was handled was shameful.”

In the first public show of legislators standing in solidarity with bill opponents, Republican Assembly members joined a red-hued rally on the Capitol steps before the Assembly hearing. Assembly Member Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, told the crowd that pro-SB 277 lawmakers thought they were too “ignorant or stupid” to raise their kids properly. Assembly Member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, compared barring unvaccinated kids from school to internment and concentration camps.

Ahead of the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Assembly Member Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, had negotiated amendments that clarified the rights of special needs students or those conducting independent studies outside of the classroom. Another said physicians could grant medical exemptions based on their professional judgment. Another change negotiated during the hearing allowed doctors to consider family history.

More than five hours after the hearing began, lawmakers passed the bill on a party-line 12-6 vote.

After a beat of silence, the shouts began raining down.

“Merck won!”

“Shame on you!”

“Fascists!”

Facts over emotion?

As the Assembly floor vote approached, the opposition campaign whirred on. A Voice for Choice paid for ads in BART cars and stations and in The Sacramento Bee, while the Public Health Council funded robocalls. Activists filed paperwork to recall Pan and other lawmakers. An Orange County organization circulated a list of lawmakers’ campaign donors and urged members to call them to express their disapproval.

“With the Assembly vote scheduled for Thursday and Independence Day around the corner, there is no better time to lob a few bombs (figuratively) on our bad assembly people and also the ones that are on the fence on SB 277,” a Facebook page for the “donor bomb” said.

During the floor debate, lawmakers again sparred over the true nature of the bill. To supporters, SB 277 was about enhancing public health; to critics, it was about robbing parents of their rights.

For parents “who three times their infant child ended up in the hospital after a shot or their baby cried endlessly into the evening until they died,” said Assembly Member Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, “… how do we accommodate that?”

Within days of Assembly passage, the Senate approved amendments and sent the bill to Brown, who signed it on the first day he was able.

“SB 277 has occasioned widespread interest and controversy,” Brown wrote in his signing message, but “the science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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