Amid a measles outbreak in his home county, state Rep. Paul Harris says he felt compelled to act to limit exemptions to the MMR vaccine. It's odd, he thinks, that more in his GOP caucus don't support his proposal given that, in his estimation, all are probably vaccinated themselves.
OLYMPIA — When Paul Harris, now 65, was diagnosed with testicular cancer 25 years ago, his doctor laid out the paths he could take. He could have surgery, removing the cancer, and have a 70 percent chance to live on, or he could also undergo chemotherapy and radiation, which would move his chances up to 95 percent.
Harris, a Republican state representative from Vancouver now leading the charge to limit exemptions to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, has been telling his story lately, trying to convince his conservative colleagues and skeptical Washingtonians that medicine matters — and immunizations are safe and effective.
“But like a vaccine, it never was 100 percent,” he said of his treatment. “I can’t guarantee you that if you take a shot, that everything is going to be fine just as when you have any medical procedure, there’s very few medical procedures that are 100 percent.”
Vancouver and Clark County are home to an unprecedented measles outbreak — 70 of the state’s 71 confirmed cases, more than 800 exposed kids held out of school, and an elevated rate of parents whose decisions to not have their children vaccinated have helped spread a disease considered eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.
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While he often agrees with his fellow Republicans, when it comes to education and public health, Harris is viewed as a pragmatic problem-solver willing to go against his party. This session, along with looking to raise immunity to viral diseases in his community, he hopes to keep teens away from smoking by raising the minimum age for tobacco from 18 to 21.
Harris says he felt compelled to act as measles spread quickly through unimmunized children in Clark County, which has one of the highest nonmedical exemption rates to the highly-effective vaccine some critics say has adverse effects.
The nonmedical exemption rate among kindergartners in the 2017-18 school year was about 2 percent nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Washington state had an exemption rate on philosophical, personal or religious grounds of 4 percent. In Clark County, according to state health-department data, it was 6.7 percent.
While all states allow for medical exemptions and only three have banned religious exceptions, Washington is among 17 states to allow some type of philosophical vaccine exemption, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More and more states are moving away from these exceptions. California in 2015, for example, eliminated personal and religious exemptions amid a multistate measles outbreak more than double the size of the one currently hitting Washington.
This is not the first time Harris has pushed such a measure. He co-sponsored legislation in 2015 that would have eliminated the philosophical or personal objection to all vaccine requirements, but the bill, which had the support of at least one Republican in then-Rep. Chad Magendanz, of Issaquah, never got a floor vote.
Oregon, with four confirmed measles cases linked to the Washington outbreak and another two unrelated cases, according to the Oregon Health Authority, is home to a similar debate surrounding immunizations as some lawmakers there look to outlaw religious, philosophical and personal reasoning for vaccine exemptions. This measure, stricter than what is being considered in Washington, means unvaccinated students would only be allowed to attend school through a medical exception.
The big picture
As the clock ticked and daily $100,000 fines from the state Supreme Court stacked up, Harris and seven other lawmakers met for months in 2017 as they tried to hash out a solution to the state’s underfunding of K-12 education as determined by the Washington Supreme Court court in its landmark McCleary decision five years earlier.
The group, evenly split both between Democrats and Republicans and the Senate and House, worked to get a proposal so the Legislature could pass its operating budget and avoid a partial government shutdown. They succeeded, and some say it wouldn’t have been possible without Harris.
“Honestly, I don’t think we could have gotten to where we did had Paul not been in the room,” said former Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, who was a member of the McCleary work group. Harris, he said, managed to bridge the gap in some areas because he listened to both sides and “continued to push for common-sense solutions that didn’t necessarily mean we’re just going to spend money.”
Taylor, who called Harris “one of the most honorable individuals” he’s worked with, noted that when, in the summer of 2016, House Republicans met to build a game plan, Harris acted as a stabilizer for the group, keeping his eye on the big picture while others could get bogged down in minute reforms.
Legislators on the other side of the aisle describe Harris in much the same way. Open to practical solutions and a “straight shooter,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, who was a part of the McCleary team and came to the Legislature in the same 2011 freshman class as Harris.
“Paul brought to the table a conservative frame of reference on the topic, but a really open mind and a really cheerful disposition that helped the conversation flow freely so that we could all exchange ideas and move forward,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, the chamber’s chief budget writer and fellow McCleary alum.
Harris’ reputation as a sensible lawmaker willing to work with anyone earned him a leadership post this session as he replaced controversial Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, as minority caucus chair.
The House late Tuesday voted 57-40 to approve the legislation spearheaded by Harris, but disliked by almost all in his party, to eliminate the personal or philosophical exemption to the MMR vaccine. The proposal now moves to the Senate where a broader bill from another Clark County lawmaker would remove the same exception for all immunizations required for entry into school or a licensed day-care center.
Harris thinks it’s odd that more in his caucus don’t support the measure given that, in his estimation, all of his Republican colleagues are probably vaccinated themselves. He noted that before putting on his glasses in his Capitol office to read from a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court decision that argued the community right to health trumped that of an individual in the case of a smallpox-vaccine mandate.
And his bill to raise the minimum age of sale for tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21 passed the House in February with mostly Democratic support while most Republicans voted against it.
Taylor, who had a reputation as a hard-line conservative during his time in Olympia, said he didn’t support either measure, calling the tobacco proposal “utterly ridiculous” because he believes the state needs to have a uniform age for when people are considered adults and it’s a matter of personal freedom. Even House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox said in a recent news conference that he doesn’t support Harris’ vaccine exemption ban, calling it “so intrusive.”
Harris increasingly stands alone in the Legislature as both sides move further to the left and right with moderates like Sen. Joe Fain, of Auburn, who faced an allegation of rape, and Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, losing their seats to liberal Democrats and as several similar House Republicans also ceded power.
In recent years, two Eastside legislative districts have moved more to the left, with Sens. Manka Dhingra, of Redmond, and Patty Kuderer, of Bellevue, helping lead the charge this year for a capital-gains tax.
Despite his stands on vaccinations and the age for tobacco use, Harris does fall into the party line on any number of hot-button issues, including environmental policy, gun control and voting rights.
He voted this month against a Democratic proposal to phase out super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons in equipment such as industrial refrigeration units, and opposed a ban requested by the state Attorney General’s office on so-called “ghost guns” that cannot be traced from a serial number or, since they lack metal, can go undetected by metal detectors, even as the top Republican on the Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee voted for it.
But when it comes to the nexus of education and public health, Harris, a former member of the Evergreen School Board, doesn’t see a reason for partisan division.
“I really believe these two bills shouldn’t be party bills,” Harris said, noting that he hasn’t tried to influence his fellow conservatives to vote for his tobacco and vaccine measures. “Community health is a Democrat issue and not a Republican? I don’t think so.”
Understanding the opposition
Harris ended up doing everything all those years ago. He had surgery, as well as radiation and chemotherapy. But he had a bad reaction to the radiation. He lost more than 30 pounds and had to endure the treatments for twice as long because they had to be cut in half.
This wasn’t the only rough reaction Harris has had to medicine. After getting a shingles vaccine recently, he had a fever, a bad headache and pain in his arm.
But would he do it all over again?
“I don’t want the shingles, man. I’ve seen people who had the shingles,” he said. “Did I have a reaction to my shingles shot? I did. Did I like it? I didn’t. But do I want the shingles? Oh no.”
While there has been vocal, emotional opposition from parents packing hearing rooms every step of the way, Harris says that, within his community, he’s gotten overwhelmingly positive responses from constituents worried about the comparatively large unimmunized population.
Hostility has come from across the country as the debate has gone national in recent weeks.
The lawmaker understands their concerns and says if he had a severe reaction to a vaccine, he probably would want an exemption, too, but a medical one.
Former Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, remembers learning a lot from distinct voices such as Harris’ in the K-12 funding work group and what can emerge when partisanship recedes.
“As we see playing out on the national stage and across our country, is we just get so, I guess, bogged down with political ideology that it’s easy to forget why we’re there,” Lytton said. “We’re not there to score points for our party. We’re there to solve problems for the people of the state.”