Capitol Alert

Anti-vaccine activist shoves California lawmaker who wrote vaccine crackdown bill

An anti-vaxxer who airs conspiracy theories on social media was cited for a misdemeanor Wednesday afternoon after he shoved state Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat touting a vaccine crack down bill, as the lawmaker was walking to a restaurant near the Capitol.

In a video that he posted to Facebook, Austin Bennett filmed himself following Pan as he walks to an Asian Pacific Islander Caucus event at Frank Fat’s, a favorite political restaurant in Sacramento.

Bennett approached Pan, who was walking with Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, and urged him to defend his stance on vaccine safety.

The two bantered back and forth about vaccine ingredients. As Pan neared the entrance to the restaurant, Bennett shoved Pan in the back.

A lobbyist attending the event and who witnessed the incident called the police. Officers with the Sacramento Police Department then cited Bennett for a misdemeanor, the police report shows.

“... yes, I pushed Richard Pan for lying, laughing at us and for treason,” Bennett wrote.

Pan, who is also a pediatrician, wrote legislation this year that would crack down on vaccine medical exemptions in California by increasing oversight of doctors that issue the passes.

The proposal, Senate Bill 276, ignited a fierce debate in the Capitol’s corridors, where hundreds of vaccine skeptics and anti-vaxxers lined up in opposition of the proposal, saying that it compromised the patient-doctor relationship and would add to “vaccine injury.”

But supporters say the bill is a necessary attempt to end “fraudulent” medical exemptions that compromise the health of sick children and babies who can’t get the shots.

The legislation was amended to win the approval of Gov. Gavin Newsom, and now awaits approval by Assembly Appropriations.

Bennett filed a petition to recall Pan with the California Secretary of State’s office on May 29 that alleges Pan disregarded a physician’s Hippocratic Oath to “first do no harm.”

“You are hereby charged with high treason for betraying your oath to defend and protect the U.S. and state Constitution,” the petition reads.

Bennett on his Facebook and Twitter accounts describes himself as a challenger to Pan in 2018. Bennett did not qualify for the general election in November.

Bennett’s social media posts show him airing conspiracy theories about a mass shooting and chem trails.

Wednesday’s incident adds to an already heated debate in the Capitol, where lawmakers sponsoring the bill say they’ve been receiving death threats for months. Members of the committees that considered the bill also said they received dozens of bricks in the mail that were etched with appeals to kill the bill.

“It should not come as a surprise to anyone that violence is the natural next step of this extremist movement that has used inciting language for a long time,” said Pan’s spokeswoman, Shannan Velayas. “We must take this threat seriously, because what is next? The next time they could use a knife or gun.”

Newsom said he “strongly condemns” the incident. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said she and her colleagues would assist in investigating what happened.

“There is absolutely no reason for resorting to violence,” Atkins said. “We may not all agree on every piece of legislation, but that is no reason to resort to aggressive and harmful behavior. There is ample room to discuss differences of opinion within the Legislative process, which is transparent and open to the public, and it is shameful that someone would betray the trust we have placed in that process and physically attack Dr. Pan.”

Velayas said Pan was not injured and that he later returned to the Capitol for a committee hearing.

“Dr. Pan will not be deterred,” she said. “He’s continuing on with his schedule.”

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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.