It was a little like being in an alternate reality Tuesday morning, as dozens of parents and children gathered on the state Capitol steps to protest a bill aimed at improving the lives of California's 9 million children.
Last year, a coalition of businesses, civic, education and political leaders came together as the Right Start Commission to push for a more child-centered approach to life in the Golden State. The project was conceived by Common Sense Kids Action, the advocacy arm of Common Sense Media, an online pop culture guide for parents that has about 65 million users.
The commission came up with broad goals that the state could commit to — a Children's Bill of Rights — affirming the importance of things like high-quality, affordable child care, universal preschool, preventive healthcare, parent education, and family-friendly business policies. They asked state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician who was vilified and threatened when he authored the state's mandatory vaccine law in 2015, to introduce a bill that would become the framework for this effort.
Who could oppose that?
The same people, it turns out, who opposed the state's mandatory childhood vaccine law. They are folks like Rod Johnson, a San Jose engineer, who told me he resents the idea that government wants to put itself in the position of telling him what is in the best interest of his 4-year-old daughter.
But let's face it. Something big needs to happen. California has the sixth-largest economy in the world, but its children rank 47th in economic well-being. California's child poverty rate — 27% — is the worst in the nation (5 points higher than the next-worst states, Arizona and Nevada, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation). Most families cannot afford quality day care.
I told Craig Cheslog, the Common Sense Kids Action vice president who is spearheading the bill of rights campaign, that I feel like I've been writing about these problems my whole career. Nothing ever seems to change.
"We get that reaction a lot from people," he said. "These things are intractable, stuck in the mud. What we heard was, 'Wouldn't it be great if someone put together a group of political, business and early childhood experts and tried to lay out a vision'? So that's what we did."
The resulting bill, SB 18, is only a vague blueprint at this point. It is meant to be the starting point for conversations with parents all over the state, to get a sense of "their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations, and how we can help them meet their goals," Cheslog said. It proposes that children have the right to parents and caregivers "who act in their best interest," the right "to live in a safe and healthy environment" and so on.
The details will be filled out over time, then presented to the Legislature by January 2022, but that has not stopped a group of over-vigilant parents from joining forces to warn about dark things that might happen when the government dares to put children — as opposed to parents — first.
At Tuesday's rally, state Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from Alpine, in the foothills east of San Diego, warned that if this bill passes, Trump-supporting parents might have their kids yanked away.
"What happens if you have the misfortune of having a Trump campaign sign in your front yard?" he said. "'Oh, you must not be a good parent because you are one of those. You have crazy ideas.' So now we're going to make political judgments about whether you should raise your children or not because you didn't support the vast majority of the legislators who are in here who want to steal your parental rights? This is crazy stuff."
Oh come now, Sen. Anderson. I know Alpine is at an elevation, but surely the air is not that thin.
Like a virus, the paranoid strain that runs through the our political discourse, as embodied in the vaccine debate, lies dormant until people feel threatened, for real or imagined reasons.
In the case of vaccines, you cannot disabuse an opponent of the notion that pharmaceutical companies are calling the shots, that the Centers for Disease Control colludes with them, that any lawmaker who supports mandatory vaccines is in the pocket of Big Pharma.
It's no accident that Sen. Anderson, a foe of mandatory childhood vaccines, brought up Trump's name.
Last week, Trump met with notorious anti-vaccine crank Robert Kennedy Jr. to discuss creating a commission that would investigate the scientifically discredited link between vaccines and autism. (Hold onto your keyboards, vaccine skeptics. I know that some children cannot tolerate vaccines, and that some have had terrible reactions, but those cases are vanishingly rare compared with the millions whose lives have been saved by childhood immunizations.)
"Whenever I hear people saying 'the science is settled,' I know they're selling something," said Johnson, who told me his daughter developed a terrible rash after her first immunizations.
Most of the parents who showed up for the anti-Bill of Rights rally were anti-vaccine activists who were energized in 2015 and 2016 when the debate over Pan's mandatory vaccine bill was raging. They include Christina Hildebrand, a 42-year-old Silicon Valley mother of two, who organized the event.
On its face, she said, the Children's Bill of Rights is benign. "We agree that the children of California should be a priority. Their health, their safety — everything — is paramount."
But, she said, "the piece we don't agree with is the fact that the government wants to come up with research-based policy to determine what is in the best interest of children. It shouldn't be the children getting the rights, it should be California supporting the parents so that parents can give their children those things. SB 18 is taking away those parental rights."
She told me she could imagine a scenario in which researchers learn that co-sleeping is not good for babies, and have them removed them from parents who believe in the family bed. "If I choose to take my children to the church or the synagogue or to the mosque every single day and the government decides that amount of religion is not in the best interest of children," she said, "what happens if I do that?"
I felt for Cheslog, who was standing at the edge of the protest, taking notes. He later met with Hildebrand and other speakers, because he thinks they are sowing fear and misinformation as a kind of payback to Pan for the vaccine bill.
"Clearly, there is some work to do to overcome some of the trust issues at play," he said. "But that is work we are willing to do."
He deserves credit for trying. The arguments against this bill are ridiculous. Our children deserve better. Parents simply cannot do it alone.