In his first few months in office, State Sen. Kevin Thomas has been a relatively quiet, unassuming legislator, who’s avoided making waves in Albany.
Then, he signed on to a bill that would lift the state’s religious exemption on vaccination.
Quickly, his office was inundated with vile calls and social media posts from those who are aggressively anti-vaccination. At a news conference in East Meadow last Friday that Thomas held with State Sen. Jim Gaughran to discuss funding for road and bridge improvements, a group of anti-vaxxers showed up and surrounded the senators, yelling after them as they tried to leave. While Gaughran was able to cleanly get to his car, which was parked further away, the protesters surrounded Thomas’ car, and wouldn’t let him leave. It wasn’t until Nassau County police were called that Thomas was able to move his car. Since then, several protesters have been posting photos of Thomas in his car to their Facebook pages, and posting angry messages to his social media accounts, accusing him of not meeting with them and not listening to their concerns.
Thomas’ staff has met with those who oppose vaccination on multiple occasions, he said. But the senator said the protests and ugly rhetoric haven’t made him any less certain about his position on vaccination.
“If somebody is going to tell me a chair is a table, I don’t know where to go after that,” Thomas told The Point. “I’m not afraid.”
Thomas isn’t the only one who’s been the target of intimidation and confrontation over the issue. Dozens of anti-vax protesters are showing up to senators’ offices, filling the hallways and small office spaces, demanding meetings. Sen. Anna Kaplan said she’s already met with “dozens of individuals” on the issue, but is still being targeted on social media as being “inaccessible.” Manhattan Democrat Brad Hoylman, the lead sponsor on the bill, said he has received “veiled threats against me and my children.”
Bronx lawmaker Jeffrey Dinowitz, who has sponsored a similar bill in the Assembly for several years, told The Point he has received hateful messages consistently, with one saying: “I hope your grandchildren get autism.”
These ugly incidents come amid a public health crisis in the state, as more than 400 people, mostly in Brooklyn and Rockland County, have been diagnosed with the measles since last fall. Despite that, there are still 1,800 children in Williamsburg alone who have not been vaccinated, New York City officials have said. Dozens of schools, mostly private, across Long Island also have low vaccination rates, too, according to an analysis by the Newsday editorial board.
Hoylman called Thomas a “profile in courage,” for remaining as a co-sponsor on the bill and for staying vocal on the issue despite the aggressive pushback.
Several sources told The Point they expect Hoylman’s bill will be taken up by the Senate shortly after the legislature returns to session at the end of the month. And Senate sources said the Democrat delegation is planning a public service campaign to encourage vaccination in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Dinowitz said he’s trying to line up support in his chamber, too, but called its passage “up in the air.”