A fight over information and rights

Raisa Piatkoff of the Russian Old Believer community stands at a rally Wednesday in front of the Capitol to support the death of a mandatory vaccine bill. The community’s involvement is one example of the diversity in the opposition to the bill. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — On Wednesday, about 100 people stood in front of the Capitol in the rain for a rally about vaccines.

They likely had all been there before, probably several times, for the same issue.

But this time they weren’t protesting the legislation that would have ended non-medical vaccine exemptions for school children.

Rather, they were celebrating victory achieved at the cost of a deep political divide in the building.

House Bill 3063 was controversial from the start and became one of the most consequential bills of the year without even passing.

The vaccine bill had passed the House and appeared to have the votes to pass the Senate. Gov. Kate Brown supported it.

Then, it became a casualty of Capitol politics.

On Monday, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, announced he would kill the vaccine bill as part of a deal to get Senate Republicans to allow Democrats to pass a billion-dollar business tax package to fund education. On Friday, it was moved back into committee – the final step in its death.

That the vaccine bill was one of the sacrificial lambs happened because powerfully motivated citizens didn’t give up and cagey legislators channeled their intensity for their purposes.

 “All of the sudden, that became very important,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, said of killing the bill.

The deal put Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, in an awkward spot. He was a chief sponsor of the vaccine bill and had spoken in support of it several times on the Senate floor. The political deal that cost him his bill put him at odds with his fellow Republican senators, but he declined to comment about what happened.

Three months ago, the idea seemed unfathomable that getting more school children vaccinated would get tangled up with the passage of Democrats’ top objective for the 2019 session.

Republicans were split over the bill and so were Democrats. Their caucuses avoided taking a position.

But a persistent, if not deft, campaign was incessant on social media as well as in the Capitol. People submitted nearly 3,000 letters and emails on the legislation.

Opponents and lawmakers supporting them said that effort was as grassroots as it gets.

Others have said it smelled more like “Astroturfing” – an insider term for propping up a movement to appear as though its grassroots.

Several seasoned lawmakers said it was unprecedented.

“As a legislator, I get contacted about everything, a lot,” Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group of people … mount the kind of numbers, touches as far as emails and Facebook and social media, every day, week after week after week.”

Opponents stood along the hallways with their mouths taped to symbolize being silenced. They stood out front with signs. They roamed the halls seeking interactions with lawmakers, and they stood in front of the Capitol parking garage mornings and evenings to remind lawmakers of their presence.

“These people have been here since February, and been here, and been here, and been here,” said Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg. “No one is paying them to do that. It really feels to me as pure of grassroots as I’ve ever seen here.”

Others are skeptical.

“It smells too well-organized to not have money behind it,” said Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, who supported tightening the vaccination requirements. Wilde acknowledged he had no evidence the opponents were funded.

But political spending reports filed with the state Elections Division show that the political action committee of one of the groups most active against HB 3063, Oregonians for Medical Freedom, has received nearly $160,000 in political donations since 2015.

A good chunk of that money $87,443 came from Portland venture capitalist Jonathan Handley and his wife Lisa. They haven’t contributed since 2017.

The Handleys’ son was diagnosed with autism and Jonathan Handley wrote a book about a connection between autism and vaccines. Over the years there have been many reports and theories on a connection between vaccines and autism, but the scientific community has repeatedly debunked them.

Handley declined to comment for this story.

Oregonians for Medical Freedom is based in Hillsboro and was registered as a nonprofit last February by the private law firm of Andrew Downs, who also serves as legal counsel for the Senate Republican office.

Downs declined to comment.

Sarah Bacon, the group’s executive director, is active in the Capitol and has repeatedly testified against the bill. She declined comment as well.

The term “medical freedom” is inherently political. It originated in libertarian circles and is a term used by famed libertarian Ron Paul. Similarly minded groups in several states use the term medical freedom or something similar.

Amber Sims, a member of Oregonians for Medical Freedom, said the group is entirely volunteer. Its website doesn’t list staff, but she said leadership consists of around 12 people. The group formed to oppose a 2015 bill by Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, the Beaverton Democrat, that would have strengthened vaccination requirements.

Sims said volunteers work long hours to provide information to parents.

“We are not trying to argue efficacy. We are trying to look at the bigger picture and say this is a constitutional violation,” she said of mandating vaccines.

Sims said Oregonians for Medical Freedom uses email and social media to reach the public, but its members also make their case in person, visiting with lawmakers and testifying at legislative hearings.

A lot of opponents got involved after hearing about the bill by word of mouth, she said.

“This issue awoke the mama bear and awoke families and awoke people that have strong convictions and do not believe the government has a right to coerce people like this,” Sims said. “This was a new line drawn in the sand.”

During hearings and rallies, people came from around the state to give deeply passionate testimony. The hearings often ended with the bulk of the crowd in tears, sometimes even legislators.

Opponents complain they are overmatched in political donations by other special interests.

National Institute on Money in Politics records show almost $16 million in donations from the pharmaceutical industry to Oregon legislators since 1990, including $1.7 million in 2018. But campaign finance records shows the industry giving donations to legislators on both sides of the vaccination issue. Thomsen got $21,000 from the industry in 2018, according to the database. Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, who fought the legislation, got $3,500 from the industry in 2018.

Sen. Sarah Gelser, D-Corvallis, said she is worried the success of the opponents could become a playbook for other issues.

The opposition pulled people from all walks of life. Many, Gelser said, were pleasant and respectful. She referenced a card and flowers given by an opponent to the bill, thanking her for reading emails and talking to them in her office.

Yellow stars of David, similar to what Jews had to wear during Nazi occupation, were worn by opponents to the bill during hearings. It furthered the rift between the two sides, as some lawmakers found it deeply offensive.

Others, she said, made physically and sexually violent threats, wore the yellow stars of David and made analogies to gas chambers, communism and Jim Crow laws. 

“I got this heinous email about being raped and being raped harder,” Gelser said. “In the past 24 hours, I have been called a turd sandwich, a whore, the C-word, I have been invited to lick, suck and bite various body parts, some of which I’ve never heard of.”

Gelser isn’t the only one. Many lawmakers have said they had poor interactions, though Sims doubted the reports.

“I honestly would say you need to question about some of those things, because that kind of communication could be very easily spun to say: ‘look what they did,’” she said. “We would have heard about it and any one of us involved would say ‘you’re out.’”

Salem Reporter independently verified Gelser’s accounts.

Many opponents are quick to lash out against criticism on social media.

Recently Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, called their tactics “reprehensible,” spurring a prompt backlash.

Brittany Ruiz, one of the leaders with a recent history of lobbying for changes at the Department of Human Services, said she couldn’t readily explain how such a diverse group mobilized.

“I seriously believe people showed up out of the woodwork,” she said.

She pointed to groups like Oregonians for Vaccine Truth and Health Care Choice, which quickly saw their social media followers double as the vaccine issue grabbed headlines.

Policing everyone isn’t possible. Sims added that her side faced death threats and other disparaging comments on a daily basis. 

Not every lawmaker had such jarring interactions, but they did see opponents daily.

On Thursday, days after the bill was declared dead, they remained in the Capitol.

It rubbed some the wrong way, but Boles, the Salem Republican, found it refreshing. The opponents said they were there to thank sympathetic lawmakers and remind the others that they were not going away. They fear a similar bill will be introduced next year.

“I’m not afraid of the people and citizens of this state,” Boles said. “They have a right and responsibility to engage with their local government. I mean, that’s what makes our system so unique and awesome.”

Some instances go beyond engagement, though.

Gelser said in one instance on March 27, a woman and her daughter came by to talk with her about the bill. They talked for an hour and even ate the waffles that Gelser’s staff makes every Wednesday.

Then Gelser’s staff told the woman it was time to go, and she refused.

She backed Gelser’s aide up to the window, filming her on a cellphone. Capitol police had to be called.

Several lawmakers and staff told Salem Reporter that they had to call police more for people opposing the vaccination bill than any issue they could remember.

But Oregon State Police Lt. Stephanie Ingraham, who leads the Capitol branch of OSP, said the agency doesn’t track the topic behind police calls but the vaccine issue didn’t stand out to her. She’s been on the job a little over two years.

One of those who became a regular at the Capitol was Raisa Piatkoff of the Russian Old Believer community in Woodburn. Her community is against the bill for religious reasons.

Piatkoff started coming to hearings in February, and slowly her community and a Slavic community got more engaged. Political action is new for them.

“We never really felt the need to step up and share our voices because we always felt that … Oregon promised our religious rights,” she said. “We’re kind of coming to the realization that this is the time, we need to stand up and raise our voices now.”

Rep. Cheri Helt, a Bend Republican and one of the sponsors of the bill, said she came under heavy and frequent fire from opponents.

 “You just continue to work hard and go with a sensible policy that will protect public health,” she said.

Helt and others said this fight isn’t over. The bill is dead for now, but it’s policy they want to bring back in future sessions.

Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have fueled Helt’s desire to pass this policy, which she says is smart and grounded in history.

This year, there have been 839 cases of measles confirmed, nearing the 25-year high of 963 reported in 1994. Outbreaks of Hepatitis A and pertussis this week in Bend, Helt’s district, underscore the need for such policy, Helt said.

People from a variety of backgrounds came to the Capitol on Wednesday to thank lawmakers for killing House Bill 3063. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Opponents aren’t done, either. Wednesday’s rally in front of the Capitol was to thank lawmakers for killing the bill. As they have often done, they gathered together to sing “God Bless America”.

The rally was organized by the Slavic and Russian Old Believer communities, but included supporters and speakers from other communities. It’s the beginning, Piatkoff said, of a bigger fight.

“We are going to be hiring a lobbyist and we are going to be even working to get a seat, to get a representative from our community to make our presence known,” Piatkoff said. “We are going to stand up for our rights. We are going to change Oregon to make it better. We are going to protect the Oregon that our ancestors came here for.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected]. Miller works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

Follow Salem Reporter on FACEBOOK and on TWITTER.

YOUR SUBSCRIPTION WOULD HELP — Salem Reporter relies almost exclusively on reader subscriptions to fund its operations. For $10 a month, you hire our entire news team to work for you all month digging out the news of Salem and state government. You get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.