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Q&A with Rep. Paul Harris on Tobacco 21, his vaccine bill, and being a “weird Republican”

Rep. Paul Harris represents Washington’s 17th legislative district, covering eastern Vancouver and other parts of southwest Clark County. Harris has held his seat in the House since 2010. This session, he took on the role as House Caucus Chair and sits on the Education, Health Care & Wellness, and Rules Committees.

This interview took place on January 30, 2019; at the time, Harris was the lead sponsor on two bills:
Tobacco 21, which would raise the age for buying tobacco products to 21 from 18; and a bill that would get rid of Washington’s philosophical or personal objection exemption for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.

Sara Gentzler: What do you think are the defining issues of the 2019 session so far?

Paul Harris: I’m on Education, I’m on Health Care, and I’m on Rules. And I was on Appropriations. So, I think my concern is just the demands for money. As I listen, I think there’s a lot of demand. Thank heavens we have a lot of money, actually. Our revenues continue to be very good in our state and we’re very fortunate.

But I think the mental health kind of concerns me, with Western State. I think we need to address that issue, and I’m very concerned that we handle mental health. That’s probably one of my top priorities. And I hear a lot of chatter about it, that it’s going to be expensive.

I kind of get lost in my own little world of education and health care. I do hear chatters of raising taxes and stuff. That really concerns me. I come from a very pragmatic district. I’ve had a democrat half my life who’s been my seatmate — this is my fifth term. So, that seat has flipped every time except this time. My seatmate, who’s a Republican, got re-elected.

So, my people probably don’t want to pay a lot more taxes yet, although they use a lot of services. So, I’m very cognizant — I hear chatter for taxes, I want to be very aware, though, that I think my people want me to balance the budget as close as I can within the revenues that they’ve been given.

SG: You’ve been in the Legislature a while.

PH: I have.

SG: Is there anything about this session that feels unique?

PH: I’m in a bigger minority than I’ve ever been. When I came in, we were at 42, and I’m at 41 now. So, a one-seat difference.

I loved it, actually, last session. Close government was good government. Even though I was in the minority, it was just barely. And I felt like I mattered. I felt like the democrats came to me a lot, because my district is that district that does swing.

And I feel like I’m a pragmatic legislator, and I still will be. I feel, this session, the Democrats have still reached out to me. I still feel they want bipartisan legislation, and if it’s something I agree with I would absolutely sign on.

So, I do feel like I’m in a bigger minority. We haven’t taken votes yet, on the floor, really. Maybe I’m still in my bubble, that I matter, but maybe I really don’t. I don’t know.

I hope health care and education aren’t completely partisan issues — I don’t believe they are. I signed onto a couple of bills that are difficult, probably, for a Republican. To me, I always marvel at that, because they shouldn’t be.

SG: What bills are you referencing?

PH: My Tobacco 21 bill that I’ve worked really hard on. I just find it odd. I don’t have a lot of my members on that bill still, probably. I probably will have — of the 42 — probably 12 to 16. So, I don’t think I’ll be at half, even.

But I don’t think raising the smoking age is a partisan issue. I think it’ll be better health for kids. I don’t think, magically, all teenagers are going to quit smoking. I’m not that stupid. But I do believe it will impact them. I think it will make it more difficult. And I think, hopefully, they’ll think when they go to vape and when they go to smoke. So, I don’t think I’m going to stop the world from turning, but I do hope it will get them to think.

Same thing with the vaccine bill. I actually dropped that bill, so I’m the prime sponsor on getting rid of the personal exemptions on Measles. Because I have an outbreak of Measles in my area. It’s been fascinating, the polarizing effect of the two sides: of those that are anti-vaccinators and those that are vaccinators.

Tragically, one of my grandchildren is highly Autistic — 8 years of age, doesn’t talk. My son and I did some extensive studying on immunizations, and I just firmly believe it has nothing to do with the Autism of my grandchild.

But that’s just me, I’ve studied it out. I feel very comfortable with that. But I’ve been accused of some weird things this week: of being a baby-killer, or that I haven’t studied the issue out, or that I’m not compassionate and I don’t care. And I go, “Wow, you don’t know who I am.” Because that’s not true. And if you have a medical reason, you can get an exemption. If you have a religious reason, you can get an exemption. Or, you can home school. There’s things you can do. There’s alternatives. The door isn’t closed.

SG: That leads me to wonder, what are the issues that you think drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans versus issues that drive a wedge within your caucus?

PH: Those two, in my caucus, probably drive a wedge. And I was rather shocked, to be quite frank. In my caucus, as I talk to members that I can tell those are wedge issues for, they’re probably more the “freedom” people than I am.

And there are a segment of anti-vaxxers that it’s all about freedom. And I think it’s a fascinating discussion: your freedom versus the community freedom. Because the Supreme Court’s weighed in pretty clear that I certainly have certain freedoms, but when it comes to health, or communicable diseases, and other things, that actually, the community freedom trumps your individual freedom.

I had somebody reach out to me and say that I was a communist. And I said, “No, we live in a democratic republic.” Sometimes, the greater good outweighs the personal good. And I hate to say that, but it actually does. And so, fascinating discussions.

So, those two issues seem to wedge. I think that the difference between the issues you’ll see between Republicans and Democrats… probably taxation again: When’s enough, enough? Where does government get into things? We’re going to have probably 8-10 percent growth in our revenue. Is that enough? I don’t know. To me, I think it is. I think we’ve got to prioritize. I think a capital-gains tax is an income tax. And if you’re going to go down that road, I just think you need to own it. Fifty states think it’s an income tax, so it is. So just be careful with what you want and what you ask for.

But that the Republicans aren’t the party of compassion and care — I absolutely do. So, truly, mental health, taking care of those that are less fortunate, that can’t take care of themselves, should be one of our absolute priorities. Education is my paramount duty and it will continue to be. And we’re not done, and we never will be done with education. So, we have some special ed that we still need to fund that we haven’t funded. I’ll work on that.

SG: On that note, what are the issues that bring both parties together? Is education one of those issues?

PH: I think it does. I think health care does, in general. Now, I might have some in my party that would disagree, but I think you’ll see: T-21 will pass. It will.

SG: Well, that answers one of the questions I was going to ask later.

PH: Absolutely, I think it’ll pass next week off the House floor. That would be my guess: end of next week. I think it’ll be heard in Appropriations, it’ll pass out of Appropriations, it’ll be one of the first bills on the House floor.

I hope vaccines. I know it’s going to alienate some people, but I hope we can get that bill done. I think it’s the right thing for our communities, as I look at my community who’s going through some turmoil right now. I have over 150 kids who can’t go to school now, for a month, because they’ve been exposed and there’s a question. I get emails from parents who are afraid to take their kids out. So I hope that bill will pass. And I can guarantee you I have those in my caucus who completely disagree with me. But, once again, I think that might pass and it has some bipartisan support.

It’s interesting on vaccines, actually, the far left we lose, too. So, the far right leaves, and the far left leaves. They leave together on a strange issue. It’s an interesting issue. It brings, I think, the moderates in both camps together. So, those centrists in the Democratic party and those centrists in the Republican party will come together on these issues.

SG: So, some education issues, some health care issues bring people together.

PH: Absolutely. Mental health, absolutely.

Maybe you’re talking to a weird Republican. I signed onto the death penalty, see, too. Another really important issue to me, actually.

Ten years ago, I would’ve been a hardcore guy on the death penalty. What changed my view on that, was I met one of the people on death row. He ended up in my office and told me his story. I looked it up, I looked at his picture and said, “OK, this is you.” He was released because of DNA. It made me really think. This isn’t a perfect system. I think our judicial system is great, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t always get it right — even in a death situation. So I changed my position on the death penalty and signed onto that.

I think I was the only Republican that signed onto it.

SG: So what’s it feel like to be a self-proclaimed “weird Republican”?

PH: Pretty good. And I respect my other members.

And I went to the AG and I said, “I want to hear that bill,” because I so firmly believe that we have people that are on death row that probably don’t deserve to be there. And I’m pro-life. So the idea that I could accidentally kill somebody that was innocent…

SG: In the context of being a “weird Republican” and having a unique perspective: How’s your new role as Caucus Chair going?

PH: It’s going really well. I don’t expect everybody to think like I think. I truly respect all my members, I really do. We all come from different areas. And I think the hardest thing is to always remember that, as passionate as I get on some issues, I’ve got some people in my own caucus that might not be near as passionate on those issues. But I think they’re representing their area.

And to always remember that my caucus has been very respectful of me, as I have of them. We’ll continue to do that. I appreciate my leader, J.T., was elected by my members to do this.

I was actually asked by some members to run. I really enjoyed being a Ranking Member. And I didn’t think I would. I really enjoyed policy more than I thought I would.

We’ll do this for awhile. Kind of like anything in my life, I enjoy it. But I enjoyed being a Ranking Member, too. They both have their perks, and both are interesting. I’ve enjoyed, thus far, both. Right now, to be quite frank, I probably enjoy being a Ranking Member more than the Caucus Chair. But we’ll see, maybe that’ll change.

SG: Speaking of policy, you’ve dropped two bills as a prime sponsor.

PH: Only two, but I’ve co-sponsored a bunch. A bunch, oh my gosh.

SG: I did see that — anything coming down the pipeline that you want to talk about?

PH: My old seatmate who moved, Representative Stonier, and I have a bill — and it’s Monica’s bill — to create personal pathways for students.

OSPI was in the office, and they brought up that bill. They said, “Paul, that could be one of the most significant bills. It’s going to make a real difference for students.” And I think it really will.

Not that college isn’t important — I graduated from college. But we have a lot of kids that might not want to go to college. To recognize another pathway for them, to recognize it early, and to help them have a way to excel in that area in a setting of high school… We need to do that. And this will create a personal pathway for those students. Maybe they’re interested in a different skill set. It will, actually, rather than penalize them, it will reward them and give them opportunity to fill a couple other credits.

SG: Is there anything else you want to add or talk about?

PH: One thing I think is going to be interesting this session: working closer with the Senate on the Republican side. I think we’re going to communicate better with our Senate counterparts. I’ve already met with Senator Becker, and I’ll meet with her again, hopefully, almost weekly to go through legislation.

That’s something that’s been missing. Just to make sure that bills that we’re dealing with, or that we feel could be of interest to them, just a heads-up: here’s how we did it. We’ve really never had that, and I think that could be very important. I find it odd that we haven’t done that before, but we’re communicating more. We’re going to sit down and talk more. I think it’ll be advantageous for both sides.

SG: There’s nothing set up, then, throughout the chambers that makes that dialogue mandatory?

PH: Absolutely not. We, as a caucus, always talk well together. But that’s a long way to that Senate over there. You laugh, but it really is. This will be my ninth session — actually more if you count all those special guys. But we really don’t go over.

I was, once again, probably unique. I would go over once in awhile and chat with my senator, or go and chat with the Democrat senator in the 49th, which is right next to mine.

We have significant issues that are, I believe, community issues. And we work really well together, the entire delegation. And we need to continue. I think it’s something new that we’ve done the last couple years, but it’s a community.

SG: Ok, on the public option: Before, you had not sounded very enthused about it.

PH: Here’s my concern about the public option, still: I actually appreciate they’re trying. I believe the market is missing something. I know that we’re missing something. I believe that everything that was voiced today is a bonafide concern: Degradation of the small market, I’m really concerned about that. I am concerned that Medicare rates.

I think everything you heard today, if you sat in that meeting, was very legit. And, can you form a network? I don’t know. So I’m not a “Hell no,” I’m not. I appreciate the dialogue, and I think there’s a need. And I think most of my members, once again, probably wouldn’t agree with me. I’m just not sure we’ve hit the sweet spot yet. So that’s my concern. Not that my chair’s doing anything wrong, because I think her intentions are noble, I really do. I’m just not sure we’re there yet.

The governor’s been in my office. They want a Republican on the bill, and I knew that. They’ve talked to me numerous times. Numerous times. But I have some concerns still. But you never know, something might get negotiated out of it.

SG: When you say everything voiced in that meeting was a bonafide concern… Some people at the end of the meeting were saying it doesn’t go far enough — universal health care or bust. I’m just clarifying, are you including that?

PH: See, I left about 15 minutes early, so I didn’t hear the end.

But there’s Republicans in my district that I talk to all the time that are very unhappy with health care. And I’ve heard, even some of them, say, “Jeez, maybe we just need to try universal health, I don’t know. But whatever we’re doing, it’s not working.” And I go, “Well, I kind of get that.” But I don’t know that I’m ready to throw in the towel yet.

I know the governor’s office, actually, was getting some heat that it didn’t go near far enough, that we need to just blow up the system.

And it’s interesting, as the Democrats get bigger this session… member management. What I do, as Caucus Chair, is a lot of member management. And it’s fascinating to try to bring diverse groups together into commonality. So, what you heard at the end of that meeting today was the left trying to influence the central democrats. Very difficult. I think that caucus is going to be fascinating to watch, very diverse.

I think Republicans, we seem to bring our diversity out into the public more often. The Democrats do much better at [keeping it] behind closed doors. But, every once in awhile, you’ll see it come out.

The floor speeches this year will be fascinating, and it’ll be fascinating to see what actually comes to the floor and what gets killed. That’s how this place works. What gets pulled out of Rules and what doesn’t, what sits there for a long time. After it sits there, percolating for a long time, if it doesn’t come out there’s probably some problems.

Speaker Chopp, let me tell you, is phenomenal. He runs that place. This will be the last year. Next year will be even more fascinating. Because they’ll have a new leader. It’ll be interesting. There should be a lot of people vying for leader over there — don’t wish too hard for what you get, because you might actually end up getting it.

SG: Is there already talk about who’s vying for it?

PH: Oh, absolutely. I think Eileen said it’ll be a woman. There’s some great women over there that absolutely could run it. They’re very capable. But it’s herding, don’t ever forget that. It’s bringing diverse people, who are all elected, from their districts, who represent their districts. You’ve got to get them to commonality.

You get elected and, sometimes, you think you’re more important than you really are. So you’ve got to remember you’re just one of 98. And you really are. You’re just one of 98, don’t ever forget that. And you need 50, in this chamber, to do something.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.