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Will Newsom keep his promise to support California’s vaccine bill? His word is at stake

Richard Pan
Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) smiles Wednesday as the state Senate approves his measure to crack down on fraudulent vaccination exemptions — amended as Gov. Gavin Newsom requested.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom is about to show the Legislature and all of us just how much his word is worth.

In June, the governor promised to sign a highly contentious vaccine bill if it was changed to narrow its scope. The measure’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), amended it the way Newsom wanted.

The governor and the senator publicly praised each other for being cooperative.

Fast-forward to Tuesday after the bill passed the Assembly 47 to 17 and was returned to the Senate for confirmation with Newsom’s requested amendments. The governor’s office tweeted that there still were “technical — but important — changes” Newsom wanted saying, “The governor believes it’s important to make these additional changes concurrently with the bill.”

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In truth, the newly requested changes weren’t just “technical,” they were significant.

Left unclear was whether the new changes needed to be approved by the Legislature “or else” — or else Newsom wouldn’t sign the bill; he’d veto it. And there wasn’t any clarification Wednesday after the Senate sent the bill without the changes to the governor on a 28-11 vote.

Gubernatorial spokesman Nathan Click merely referred me to the previous day’s tweet.

The changes still could be approved in a separate bill before the Legislature adjourns for the year next Friday. But Pan wasn’t in any mood for that.

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“I’m optimistic the governor will keep his word,” Pan told me. “Giving in to the [anti-]vaxxers is not something that would be looked upon favorably by Californians. We have the bill we agreed upon.”

Newsom tripped over his word earlier this year and landed in hot water with people.

The California Senate gave final approval Wednesday to SB 276, a closely watched crackdown on vaccine exemptions for schoolchildren.

In 2016 and again in 2018, Newsom pledged that, if elected governor, he’d follow the public’s will on capital punishment, even though he opposed it. Twice in recent years, Californians have voted to retain the death penalty. In fact, they even voted to expedite it.

But soon after being sworn in, Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment while he’s in office.

Also, when voters were given a chance last year to repeal hefty gas tax and vehicle fee increases, the state promised that if the increases were retained, every community would share in the new transportation money. Voters bought into the state’s pledge.

But after becoming governor, Newsom proposed legislation to withhold gas tax funds from cities that weren’t doing enough to spur home building — a non sequitur.

The vaccine bill, SB 276, would tighten the state’s immunization law that requires children to be vaccinated against contagious diseases — including measles and polio — before being admitted to school for the first time. Kids can be excused for medical reasons, such as a weak immune system.

Pan, himself a physician, believes a few unscrupulous doctors have been peddling medical exemptions for phony reasons to parents who obsessively fear vaccinations.

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Under his bill, the state Public Health Department would review and potentially reject medical exemptions written by doctors who have granted five or more in a year, or for children who attend schools with immunization rates of less than 95%.

One of Newsom’s requested changes is to count only those exemptions written by a doctor after the bill is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. Under Pan’s bill, past exemptions would count, too.

Pan told colleagues during the Senate floor debate Wednesday that he’s always willing to work with the governor on legislation, but it’s too late in this year’s session to tinker with his bill.

“No one wants to go through this again,” the senator told me. “People are tired of being harassed and attacked.”

Sacramento Police cited an anti-vaccine activist for assaulting vaccine bill author state Sen. Richard Pan on Wednesday near the Capitol.

The bill encountered the nastiest opposition lobbying campaign I’ve ever seen in the Legislature, going back decades.

Some parents believe that vaccinations can cause other ailments — mistakenly thinking, for example, that a measles shot can trigger autism, a discredited theory.

For months during committee hearings and floor debates, opponents have shouted and screamed. At protests and rallies, Pan has been compared to Adolf Hitler and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. The senator’s face has been printed on T-shirts and covered with fake splattered blood. There have been death threats.

On a hot August day, Pan was walking to lunch with a fellow lawmaker when an anti-vaccine activist shoved him in the back.

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“He slammed his hand into my back; a real thud — not just a push,” Pan told me.

Anti-vaxxers tried to disavow the attack, but Pan doesn’t buy it. His attacker “was ginned up by their rhetoric,” the senator says. ”That’s what leads to violence.”

One of the “ginners,” Pan says, was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who lobbied in the Capitol against what he called the “draconian proposal.”

Trying to avoid hordes of opponents, the Assembly unexpectedly took up the bill on Wednesday.

“Legislators have had enough,” Pan said. “It didn’t matter where they were on the bill.”

During the Senate debate, Republican leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield was arguing against the bill when anti-vaxxers began shouting from the balcony. Grove told them if they didn’t shut up — those were not exactly her words — she was going to sit down and not say another word.

For some reason this became a partisan issue, with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposing it.

Some Senate Republicans said it was about “personal freedom.” Democrats shot back that if it was about that, they should be for personal choice on abortion.

The next move is Newsom’s. Children’s immunizations and his word are at stake.


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