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Vaccine issue looms large in Long Island election battles

Rita Palma, 2nd from left, a Blue Point

Rita Palma, 2nd from left, a Blue Point parent and longtime advocate, sits along with other families who are opposed to mandatory vaccination on Aug. 14, 2019. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Among the issues raised that have put some Democrats — including several on Long Island — in danger of losing their State Senate and Assembly seats: Vaccination.

Those who oppose vaccines, or the requirements that schoolchildren must be vaccinated, had spent the election season fighting for candidates who support the concept of "my body, my choice," while battling the incumbents who voted for the 2019 state law that removed the religious exemptions for mandatory vaccines.

The conflict is between those who note that the science on vaccines is irrefutable and the importance of public health paramount and the groups, mostly of parents, who oppose all vaccinations or say the mandates are a violation of individual freedom.

"The VACCINE CHOICE COMMUNITY/MOVEMENT can take healthy credit for the defeat of a robust list of Freedom Thieves — reps who supported the [religious exemption] repeal bill on June 13th 2019 without a thought to the victims of their stupidity. We can also claim credit for the victories of their opponents," Blue Point advocate Rita Palma wrote on Facebook Wednesday afternoon. "We will continue to affect elections EVERY year to make our opponents pay with their jobs and reward our supporters with our votes and other support."

Palma, who heads an organization called My Kids, My Choice, claimed credit for defeats of Democrats in 14 State Senate and Assembly races, although many of those have yet to be decided.

"This is the first time that the vaccine rights community in New York has been really engaged in an election," said Long Beach resident John Gilmore, who heads the Autism Action Network. "Just judging by the results, I’d have to say we were some sort of factor, not only on Long Island, but statewide."

On Long Island, Gilmore told The Point that he and others worked particularly hard to elect Alexis Weik, who ran against State Sen. Monica Martinez; Dennis Dunne, who ran against State Sen. Kevin Thomas; Ed Smyth, who opposed State Sen. Jim Gaughran; and Republican Anthony Palumbo, who ran against Laura Ahearn in an open seat. So far, all of those Republicans are leading in their races.

Palma noted that the group also opposed Assembs. Steve Englebright, Judy Griffin and Steve Stern, all of whom are in tight races that most likely will go in their favor. The group also supported candidates who ran against State Sens. Todd Kaminsky and Anna Kaplan, both of whom held onto their seats.

Gilmore said he and other advocates donated to and volunteered for campaigns, and used lawn signs, word of mouth and social media to get their messages across. They backed candidates who particularly agreed with their desire to allow parents to have the choice of whether to vaccinate their children.

Throughout the campaign season, Republican candidates for Senate and Assembly often used similar language in their interviews with the Newsday editorial board.

"At least in New York, we have a lot more friends and a lot fewer enemies in Albany than we did a couple of days ago," Gilmore said.

Rather than backing a repeal of the ban on religious exemptions, Gilmore said he’s hoping for a more sweeping policy of allowing adults and parents to choose whether to vaccinate their children.

"I should have the right to make those decisions," Gilmore said.

Palma on Wednesday promoted the concept of an "informed consent" exemption, a way for parents to say a simple "no" to vaccines, but still allow their children to attend school.

And Gilmore said he expected those messages to get more attention in the coming months, especially given the focus on a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

"I have no doubt that there are almost two dozen former politicians or soon-to-be-former politicians who are former because of our involvement in their campaigns, though we’ll find out once the dust settles," Gilmore said.

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