Oregon Activists Who Opposed Public Health Efforts to Increase Vaccination Rates Are Now Running for Office

“There are many Oregonians who believe strongly enough in medical freedom that the vaccine issue makes them single-issue voters.”

A vaccination clinic at David Douglas High School in 2019. (Henry Cromett)

Anna Kasachev got her start in Oregon politics by lobbying against a bill aimed at increasing vaccinations of schoolchildren.

Kasachev is a member of the Old Believers, a Russian Orthodox sect with an enclave outside Woodburn. She appears to be the first Old Believer to seek elected office.

Kasachev is campaigning on a wide range of Republican issues, but she's adamant about one: freedom from vaccine requirements.

"In America, we as U.S. citizens have the right to get sick if we want to, right?" Kasachev said in an Oct. 9 campaign Q&A posted to her Facebook page. "That is the beauty of this country."

She hasn't returned calls from WW. But allies say she was energized by 2019's House Bill 3063, which would have removed an exemption from vaccinations for children whose parents don't believe in them. Adding to her motivation to run for office? A snub by incumbent state Rep. Teresa Alonso León (D-Woodburn) during that lobbying effort.

"Anna Kasachev met with her opponent, who assumed she, like many of the members of the community of Russian Old Believers, wasn't a registered voter," says Bob Snee, a board member of Oregonians for Medical Freedom, a lobbying group that opposes increasing vaccination rates. "She and others were told that they were not 'constituents' and her opponent would not even give them any time to listen to them."

Alonso León disputes that account, saying she sat down with her and offered to meet again on other issues. "It's an absolute lie," she says. "I take a lot of pride in representing my entire district and all the people in it."

Now Kasachev wants Alonso León's seat, to give voice to people who believe immunizations are harmful.

For many Oregonians, the hope for a return to normal existence hinges on the development of a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine—along with widespread acceptance of its use. But members of Oregonians for Medical Freedom, the group that lobbied against HB 3063, have moved beyond lobbying to run for office.

Kasachev joins Beaverton state Senate candidate Harmony Mulkey as well as McMinnville City Council candidate Brittany Ruiz among vaccine skeptics seeking office on a platform that no one should be required to get a shot.

"The women you've named and others likely were inspired to run because they didn't like what they saw and heard from elected representatives, both privately and in legislative hearings and chambers," says Snee. "There are many Oregonians who believe strongly enough in medical freedom that the vaccine issue makes them single-issue voters."

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates daily life, vaccines have become an election-season battleground. Oregonians for Medical Freedom has also given relatively modest campaign contributions to Republicans who opposed HB 3063, including $250 to secretary of state candidate Sen. Kim Thatcher, $1,000 to state Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend, and $1,500 to state Sen. Denyc Boles of Salem.

But Democrats have seized on the issue, too. In a couple of key Senate districts, Democrats are using the vaccination issue to damage Republicans, particularly in the hotly contested Marion County legislative seat held by Boles.

"Our future depends on a lot of science and a safe vaccine," reads one mailer from the Democratic Party of Oregon. "Denyc Boles doesn't believe in either."

Democrats are attempting to link Oregon vaccine debates to the unscientific response of national Republicans to the pandemic.

"Our candidates trust public health experts and science," says Meghan Cavanaugh, executive director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund. "They are running against Republican incumbents who are questioning the science behind vaccines. The anti-vaccine movement both threatens public health and is entirely out of step with the position of most Oregonians, who have made clear that they trust scientific experts."

Boles, then a member of the House, opposed HB 3063. "My kids all received vaccinations," she says now. "I believe in science. I also believe parents should have a say over their children's healthcare. I also think it's important to note that HB 3063 was opposed by members of both parties."

Democrats are pursuing a similar strategy against Sen. Knopp in Bend. Like Boles, Knopp holds one of the GOP seats most vulnerable to Democrats.

One mailer from the Democratic Party of Oregon includes in a list of bullet points: "He's Anti-Vaccines" with the tagline "Tim Knopp: Too extreme for Central Oregon."

Knopp was the only Republican state senator not to join the last GOP walkout in 2020, so it may be difficult to call him an extremist. But he's opposed efforts to increase vaccination rates.

Knopp was the sole sponsor of a 2019 bill to forbid employers from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, and he voted against a bill that would have required vaccination rates to be disclosed.

"When the government can send you a mandate that you have a medical procedure that you do not want, there is no freedom in America," he said at a 2019 rally.

Knopp says he's not campaigning on the issue of vaccines and he's not "anti-vaccine."

"Democrats are misrepresenting everyone's position on the issue," he says.  "I am for informed consent—which is part of the Democrat platform, by the way."

Democrats hope to defeat Boles and Knopp to foreclose future GOP walkouts, a tactic Republicans have repeatedly used to stall carbon-reduction bills. Defeating the duo would have a secondary benefit for Dems: clearing a path for vaccination requirements.

Vaccinations have not historically been a party-line issue. In 2019, state Sen. Chuck Thomsen (R-Hood River) co-sponsored HB 3063, while three of his Democratic colleagues, Sens. Jeff Golden of Ashland, Lee Beyer of Springfield, and Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, weren't counted on for support.

Most Oregonians and most Americans support expanding vaccine laws. A national survey by Pew Research in 2016 found 83% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans favored a vaccine requirement for healthy schoolchildren. Similarly, the vast majority of Oregonians vaccinate their children, but for many of the tiny sliver who don't, it can be the most important issue around.

It's unclear whether the pandemic will shift that, particularly as trust in the COVID-19 vaccine has eroded. A third of Republicans and 19% of Democrats say they will not get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, according to an Economist/YouGov poll in September.

Meanwhile, another vaccine activist is running for city council in Willamette Valley wine country.

In perhaps the unlikeliest endorsement of the Oregon political season, a Hollywood actress weighed in on a McMinnville City Council race, urging a vote against a challenger named Brittany Ruiz.

"Her sole purpose for running is to secretly represent Scientology and gain influence for this destructive cult's activities," Leah Remini, an apostate Scientologist who starred in the sitcom The King of Queens, tweeted on Oct. 14.

Even though the city council position is nonpartisan and unpaid, Ruiz's candidacy is attracting attention.

While the Church of Scientology hasn't formally endorsed an anti-vaccine position, Scientologists were part of the effort to lobby against California bills to crack down on exceptions for vaccines.

Ruiz has been a vocal opponent of a vaccine requirement in Oregon. Oregon's rate of exempting children for nonmedical reasons is among the nation's highest. But after the measles outbreak in 2019, Ruiz called the Oregon Health Authority's characterization of vaccination rates "bogus."

"I have appreciated the insights from Scientology," she says. "My worldview takes a broad look at a number of ideologies. Through this, I've learned to accept everyone's path without judgment."

Rachel Monahan reported this story with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2020 National Fellowship.

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