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Anti-vax battle heats up

Rookie State Sen. Kevin Thomas has over $200,000

Rookie State Sen. Kevin Thomas has over $200,000 in student loans, and he wants to make the loan process better for everyone else.  Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Daily Point

Anti-vax movement gets ugly

On this day in 1955, the polio vaccine was declared a success when the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center announced that it was, “safe, effective, and potent,” after more than 1.8 million children had participated in trials nationwide over the previous year. In this April 1954 Newsday photo by Walter del Toro, children line up for their test shots at a Huntington elementary school.

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.”

- Randi F. Marshall @randimarshall

Talking Point

Long-term victory

Former 2nd Congressional District candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley landed national headlines last year when she successfully lobbied the Federal Election Commission to allow her to pay for child care with campaign funds.

The Amityville Democrat lost to long-term incumbent Pete King but months after the election she launched the Vote Mama political action committee to support other mothers running for local, state and federal office.

Vote Mama announced its first full class of some 20 candidates this week (a few candidates had received support in more immediate races). The hopefuls include five from Long Island: Laura Burns for Nassau County Legislature; Gabriela Castillo for Freeport school board; Erin Guida and Melissa McCardle for Oyster Bay Town Council; and Rachel Klein for Oyster Bay town clerk.

Grechen Shirley says that more than 120 candidates from 23 states applied online, and the group did a few weeks of interviews to narrow down the list. Candidates had to be running on the Democratic line, and raising children 18 years old or younger. The candidates also must support access to abortion, paid family leave and universal pre-kindergarten.

The PAC, which Grechen Shirley says has raised almost $250,000, can donate directly to candidates and also offers access to a bank of volunteers. The organization plus a national advisory committee that includes New York  Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre can offer mentorship. The candidates will be on a Slack channel where they can share advice about juggling kids and campaigning.

Grechen Shirley says the group will be adding more candidates in the coming months in an effort to put more mothers in office.

As for her own elective prospects, Grechen Shirley says she is talking to family and others about another congressional run and doesn’t have anything else to report yet.

“I am seriously considering it,” she says.

- Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

Editor’s note: Candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley ran in the 2nd Congressional District. An earlier version of this item included the incorrect district.  Also, Rachel Klein is a candidate for clerk in the Town of Oyster Bay. Her candidacy was incorrect due to erroneous information supplied to The Point.

Pencil Point

Wish you were here

For more cartoons, visit www.newsday.com/opinion

Final Point

Not so long ago

Once upon a time, Nassau was America’s fastest-growing county. The 1940 census proved that, and one year later, the Newsday Editorial Board observed that the thousands of homes planned or built since then would maintain that growth.

All the more reason, the board wrote on April 10, 1941, that a county Planning Commission was urgently needed. But despite the county charter providing for such a commission, no one had yet been appointed to it. The board said it knew why:

“One big reason for this, apparently, is the fear that the public would object to the addition of any more bureaus or departments which tend to increase taxes, at a time when the burden is at its peak.”

Taxes at their peak? 78 years ago?

The occasion for the board’s championing of a Planning Commission was a proposal from the Long Island Association for an industrial zone along the main branch of the Long Island Rail Road, from Mineola to Farmingdale and then across the foreign land of Suffolk out to Ronkonkoma. The LIA believed such a zone would create jobs, stabilize real estate and tax values, and keep industry in one place.

A functioning Planning Commission, Newsday’s board wrote, could protect Nassau “from becoming a hodge-podge of industrial and residential zoning, unchartered and ugly.”

Well...

The editorial board had two minds about village zoning boards on this count. On the one hand, they “prevented glaring mistakes from being made, contributed their bit to making their home town a better place.” On the other, they “can only protect their own back yards...They can in no way work toward a general plan for the location of business factories and residences.”

Without coordinated countywide planning, the editorial board opined, “the county as a whole is threatened with a problem that will take years to solve.”

More than 78 years in some places, as it turned out.

- Michael Dobie @mwdobie

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