Capitol Alert

Bricks, death threats and fury: A last-ditch fight against California’s vaccine crackdown

California’s debate over a proposed law to tighten kids’ exemptions for mandatory vaccines was never subtle.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bill say they’ve been receiving death threats for months. Someone in June mailed Assembly members dozens of bricks etched with appeals to kill the measure. On Twitter, celebrities heckle vaccine proponents and each side warns of deadly consequences.

Now, as lawmakers head into the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, anti-vaccine advocates are turning to an out-of-state political operative known for provocative campaigns in a last-ditch effort to undermine a bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom has already indicated he’d sign.

The consultant, Jonathan Lockwood of Oregon, charges that California leaders are ready to “sacrifice children” by compelling more kids to get vaccines through Senate Bill 276.

“Any lawmaker who votes yes on SB 276 will have blood on their hands. It’s up to each of them to decide if they will be accessories to the real human cost of this lethal legislation,” wrote Lockwood. “How much is a life worth? Will lawmakers sacrifice children for political purposes or will they acknowledge and act according to the truth?

He’s supported by an alliance called the Conscience Coalition, which is a national effort founded by California-native Renee Bessone and lobbyist Greg Mitchell. Lockwood is a spokesman for Republican lawmakers in Oregon.

The trio has partnered with groups and families across California to tank Sen. Richard Pan’s measure, which they say will hurt, even kill, children.

In recent press releases, Lockwood, who serves as the group’s executive director, wrote that lawmakers supporting the bill are signing off on the “injury and death sentences of vulnerable children,” and referred to the legislation as “the height of insanity.”

The proposed law would increase oversight of doctors issuing vaccine medical exemptions to California school children.

Pan, a Sacramento Democrat and pediatrician, said the bill is necessary to end “fraudulent” exemptions that leave sick kids and babies vulnerable to otherwise preventable diseases like measles.

The legislation builds on Pan’s 2015 law that prohibits parents from using personal beliefs as a reason not to vaccinate their children enrolling in school. Since then, clusters of medical exemptions in schools across the state have led to vaccination rates below 95 percent, which is the threshold considered safe for “community immunity” against diseases.

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After a round of amendments earlier this summer that relaxed some of the state’s authority over the exemptions, Newsom signaled his support for the bill.

Ahead of his signature, Bessone said she advocates for medical and religious freedom, and hopes for an “underdog victory” by Conscience Coalition members. She said she tapped Lockwood to lead the organization, given his work in Oregon.

Lockwood’s language has earned him a reputation by Oregon Democrats as a spokesperson touting a “hyperbolic and fear-mongering style.” He’s drawn rebukes from The Denver Post and has raised eyebrows for press releases he wrote for three lawmakers in Salem.

In February, he connected Eric Garner’s 2014 death at the hands of New York City police officers to high tobacco taxes. The unarmed black man had been accused of selling untaxed cigarettes.

“New York tobacco taxes were so high it created a black market. It created violence that led to a situation that led to Eric Garner being killed,” Lockwood told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Molly Woon, deputy director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said the release was among several during the 2019 session that ruffled feathers in the Capitol.

“Given his inflammatory rhetoric, he certainly got attention and people were wondering if this was an appropriate use of state funds,” Woon said. “He has a knack for having a vivid imagination that I think stretches the truth.”

Lockwood said he was the “insider in (a) fight” to defeat Oregon’s attempt at a vaccine crackdown this year. The bill died amid negotiations as one of the “most hotly contested political issues,” according to The Bend Bulletin.

“I was instrumental in defeating the bill as a spokesperson in the Capitol by day, and strategist by night,” Lockwood said.

The vaccine debate in California has also been among the most heated this year. Hundreds of people have packed committee hearings on the bill.

It inspired Twitter battles between actor Rob Schneider and SB 276 co-author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and prompted celebrity activism on both sides of the aisle.

Bricks were mailed to lawmakers on committees considering the measure, including Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento. His office said about 40 bricks carried messages like “Vote No on SB 276.”

“Legislation should not be shaped by people bullying and intimidating, or threatening your representative’s life and family,” argued Pan, who said he’s received death threats. “We can have disagreements, that’s fine. How do we resolve that? Through the political process defined by our constitution and the laws we created.”

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Bessone and Lockwood said Conscience Coalition members were not involved with sending the bricks or issuing threats.

Advocates for the bill have also traveled to the Capitol to share their families’ experiences.

Jenni Balck, a Ladera Ranch mother and Vaccinate California member, testified in support of SB 276 in June.

Her 10-year-old-daughter received a heart transplant as a child and needs her classmates to get vaccinated, Balck said.

“Kids in public school who have actual medical exemptions, them and their families have been through the depths of hell,” Balck said. “Being in public education shows they’ve made it through to the other side. They have the right to education in a safe environment without the threat of preventable disease sending them back to the hospital, or worse.”

Parents still have the option to home school or participate in independent studies, Pan said, reiterating that SB 276 doesn’t take away parental rights not to vaccinate.

But to protect classmates, children will otherwise have to get the shots.

“This term ‘medical freedom’ is a misnomer,” Pan said. “Language is important. What freedom really is, is being able to go about your community and not worrying about being sick or dying.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.