Representative Paul Harris represents Washington’s 17th Legislative District in eastern Vancouver and parts of southwest Clark County. He serves as the Caucus Chair of the House Republicans and is a member of the House Health Care & Wellness, Education, and Rules Committees.
During the 2019 Legislative Session, Harris sponsored a bill limiting exemptions to the MMR vaccine after his home county was hit with a measles outbreak. The bill ultimately passed, but during its journey through the legislature, Harris said he faced significant backlash and death threats from some in opposition to the bill. We spoke with Harris for his take on the threats and why it was important for him to push forward with the legislation.
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Emily Boerger: You’ve previously mentioned receiving backlash and death threats related to your vaccine bill from this past session. Can you tell me more about that?
Rep. Paul Harris: “Sure, just a couple of people — apparently with another group — who are basically against vaccinations had posted a couple of threats on Facebook. I became aware by the state police and they notified me of that. The state police were very supportive and they handled the situation.
Senator Annette Cleveland [who championed the bill in the Senate] actually had more problems than I did. And I really felt bad for her because it really impacted her quite a bit.
The divisiveness of the issue really didn’t surprise me. I knew I’d have some backlash, but I wasn’t anticipating what really came down.”
EB: Do you know who the threats were from?
PH: “I believe I do, yes. I was familiar with the one gal who made the threat. Having known her I kind of discounted the threat because she had been around on campus and had confronted me on this issue numerous times.”
EB: In a previous Q&A with the Wire, you noted that the backlash comes from the far ends of the political spectrum – both on the left and the right.
PH: “It is, yeah. Both far ends, both the far right and the far left… So, there was a segment of people from Vashon Island, and a lot of the backlash from the far right came from the Spokane area.”
EB: Why do you think that is?
PH: “Actually, I don’t know. For me personally, I just believe in vaccinations. So, I think there’s a lot of misinformation that I guess perpetuates in certain areas. More people glean onto it.
My daughter actually lives in Spokane and got some backlash a little bit from people, where she would post something about my vaccine bill and she got a little bit of pushback from people in her area.
But most of it was in the Spokane area. I mean, I had some from my area also, but not near the numbers [in Spokane]. And not near, I guess as vigilant as those in Spokane.”
EB: Have you ever received this kind of backlash on any of your other bills?
PH: “I did the Tobacco 21 bill last year; it passed. I got some pushback from the tobacco industry on it, but nothing like this. And actually, at the end, the tobacco industry completely flipped and came on board.
But no, I’ve never received anything really to this extent. There are always two sides of every bill. But this was by far the most divisive bill that I have done.”
EB: So, it was obviously important for you to push forward with this bill regardless of the threats you were receiving. Why this year and why this bill? Why was it important to you?
PH: “Well, for me, my area [Clark County] was the area that had the 74 cases of the measles. I hadn’t planned on running the bill. I had signed onto a vaccine bill in 2015 by Representative June Robinson and had gotten some pushback on that but nothing like this.
I guess just the outbreak in my area reaffirmed to me the importance of being vaccinated. And so, it was literally just because of the outbreak that I did the bill.”
EB: So, this was strictly related to the MMR vaccine. I know other states have push for broader vaccine legislation, can we expect anything else on this topic in the coming session?
PH: “I’m not going to do anything next year. I’m going to wait and see the implications of this bill and see how it works.
We are one of the few states, actually there were lots of states that proposed bills, but I think there’s only two states that actually passed bills last year, and we were one of them. This group, Informed Choice is the group in Washington, those that don’t believe in vaccinations — they were able in many other areas to kill bills.
I mean, I would have preferred June Robinson’s bill that was introduced in 2015 which was basically getting rid of the personal exemption for all vaccines. But, we could not get that passed.
I think that will be maybe a long session bill again. So, I don’t think anything will happen this coming year; the session coming up is the short session. But, maybe the following year we could take a look and see what our vaccination rates are and see if we have resolved some of our issues –which is getting our community immunity up. It’s really important. So, if we’re there, if our community immunity is up, I don’t know what we need another bill. We just need to look and see where we’re at.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.