A menacing, oversized plastic syringe and a tank glinting with tiny fish – “the number of goldfish in this tank equals the number of vaccinations children receive from BIRTH-18 YEARS,” a sign informed – greeted Karen Jensen as she paused at the Lodi Grape Festival last week to learn about the latest front against California’s mandatory vaccine law.
Signed into law this June after a ferocious political fight, Senate Bill 277 requires that children – unless they have a medical exemption – receive all their shots before enrolling in public or private school. Opponents who could not halt it in the Legislature hope voters will rally to their cause by overturning the law at the ballot box.
After listening to volunteers at a booth stacked with petitions, Jensen said she sympathized with the argument that the government shouldn’t be mandating treatment. But she looked to her teaching career to inform her ultimate choice.
“I think they need to protect everyone in a school from picking up something from someone else,” Jensen said. “We need to keep people safe.”
Volunteers at the booth, which was sandwiched between kiosks advertising a chiropractor and a casino, had more success with Adam Cobarrubio, a retired postal office maintenance manager who chatted as his grandson peered at the goldfish. Cobarrubio and his wife signed.
“So many times, things are passed and we don’t know all the facts about it,” Cobarrubio said. “We should be able to decide because it affects our children and grandchildren. I think vaccines are there for our benefit, but it should be our option if we want our kids to take them.”
Those dueling perspectives crystallize the debate that pursued SB 277 through the Legislature. In the end, those calling widespread vaccination a needed bulwark for public health triumphed over critics warning of a loss of parental freedom.
Opponents have not given up. They believe the same fervor that sent thousands of angry parents to the state Capitol will sustain their ballot campaign and put the issue before the people.
Qualifying a referendum for California’s statewide ballot is difficult, and few supporters of SB 277 believe referendum backers have the resources to collect 365,880 signatures by Sept. 28. They say the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown mirrored the science and the polling: vaccines work, and the public overwhelmingly supports them.
“This bill passed through six committees, the governor signed it. This is a policy that has a lot of public support,” said Molly Weedn, a spokeswoman for the California Medical Association. “We feel confident that people understand the benefits around vaccinations.”
Referendum volunteers on the ground collecting signatures say SB 277 backers are blind to the magnitude and determination of a parent-driven, grass-roots movement.
“What you’re seeing is an issue that’s touching people across the spectrum and invigorating them,” Janine Kloss of Natomas said as she stood near the booth in Lodi. “When they see the number of signatures we turn in, it’s going to be amazing and it’s going to change the conversation.”
Many volunteers have come through the network forged in the fight against SB 277 and prior vaccine-related legislation. But they have a champion in former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a stalwart libertarian who submitted the referendum petition and has taken the campaign to the airwaves in his post-legislative life as a talk radio host.
The response, Donnelly said, has been “the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever witnessed,” an upsurge of supporters from across the political spectrum for whom the matter is “life and death.” A GoFundMe page pulled in over $170,000 as of Wednesday, money that funded paid-signature gathering beginning last week.
“We are expanding and increasing their numbers,” Donnelly said.
But Donnelly said organizers have yet to enlist potential “big donors,” many of whom have been too skeptical of the referendum’s chances or leery of its goals to write checks.
“I worked through all the people who supported me in the governor’s race and it was really, really slim pickings. There were some people who were into it and some people who were ‘polio, polio, polio,’ ” he said, while business owners worried about losing customers. “A couple of big checks could be the difference.”
In seeking to broaden their sphere of supporters, Donnelly said, organizers have relied on two hubs of sympathetic Californians: chiropractors and churches.
Both make natural allies. During the SB 277 fight, the California Chiropractic Association offered opponents the sole source of institutional support, seeking to counter formidable groups like the California Medical Association by testifying against the bill, collecting donations and lining up witnesses in opposition.
Now chiropractic offices across the state have agreed to help distribute petitions. About 700 different offices are participating, said San Diego chiropractor and organizer Jennifer Lovern.
“Our clientele tend to be naturalistic. They look at health in a more holistic way rather than just running to Kaiser to get a prescription,” Lovern said. “It’s kind of a no-brainer to have the petitions in that type of office.”
Eliminating California’s personal belief exemption will also prevent parents from skipping vaccines for religious reasons, making California one of just three states to do so. While few organized religions explicitly bar vaccines, opposition to SB 277 has resonated with faith groups around the state, with places of worship also becoming signature-gathering centers.
Multiple locations of the evangelical Calvary Chapel have gotten involved. Organizers said they have had particular success with churches affiliated such ethnic groups as Korean and Slavic immigrants.
“From the very first day they arrived in the United States that’s one of the things they ask about, is the right to choose whether to do vaccinations or not,” said Vasiliy Warkentin, CEO of the Russian Baptist Church in West Sacramento.
Parishioners from the former Soviet Union, he said, “weren’t allowed to preach the Gospel to their kids. The government was telling them what they can and cannot do with their children. So when we have a bill that mimics that Soviet regime that these immigrants ran away from in a way, they ask themselves, where did they come to?”
Many of the people walking by the booth in Lodi kept going after learning what they were being asked to support. But 750 of them stopped and signed, organizers said, each offering a glimmer of hope that they, and not SB 277’s author, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, would get the final word.
“Sen. Pan had his vote,” volunteer Andrew Liebich said. “We’d like ours.”