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Vaccine debate opens old wounds in the House

An already-charged floor debate on vaccines, and follow-up remonstrances the next day, took a turn for the especially unpleasant.

COURTESY STATE OF OREGON - Oregon House of RepresentativesIt's not unusual to see Democrats and Republicans verbally clash in the Oregon State Capitol. There's a lot about which they tend to disagree.

But an already-charged floor debate on vaccines, and follow-up remonstrances the next day, took a turn for the especially unpleasant.

All but two House Republicans voted "nay" on House Bill 3063, which takes away the ability of parents to choose not to vaccinate their children for philosophical or religious reasons if they are enrolled in school, on Monday; all but five House Democrats voted "aye."

Amid the usual debate about the dangers of communicable diseases, the safety of vaccines and the freedom of Oregonians to make their own medical decisions, Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, decided to pose another question.

"I wonder why this body doesn't take bolder action to protect our children from diseases carried by illegal aliens," said Nearman, an opponent of the bill, "especially those from third-world countries, where one would expect that the diseases are more readily carried."

House members who plan to speak on a bill during a floor debate generally prepare their remarks in advance, and Nearman's out-there argument — for which he did not provide supporting evidence — got little attention for the rest of the debate.

During Tuesday's remonstrances, though — during which representatives can speak on a subject of their choosing — several Democrats stood to denounce Nearman's remarks from the previous day.

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, called them "offensive, anti-immigrant rhetoric." Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-Astoria, added that "some things were said that had no place in (the) Oregon Capitol." Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City, said he was "very disappointed" by the comments.

"It is because of hateful speech and rhetoric from leaders, both in this state and in this country, that these inequities and attitudes persist," Meek said.

House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, in turn rose to complain that Democrats "have gone out on a limb today to look back at what was said and find fault with that."

"I would just say, come on, this is the United States of America," Wilson said. "We may be able to say things that irritate other people or, quote-unquote, offend other people, but this is the United States of America, and we are guaranteed freedom of speech."

It devolved from there.

Wilson was among the House Republicans who successfully lobbied Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, to revoke a veteran lawmaker's committee chairmanship earlier this year after he insulted a lobbyist who was testifying. That lawmaker, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, hadn't forgotten Wilson's role in his ouster, accusing him of "blatant hypocrisy" for criticizing Democrats over their chastisement of Nearman.

"Sir, I demand an apology from you," Greenlick said, addressing Wilson directly, "because if you really believe what you just said, you would not have demanded that I lose my committee chair because of comments I made that I had already apologized for."

In turn, Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, defended Wilson. He said stating a position in a floor speech "is significantly different than sitting in a committee shushing people and calling people stupid."

Greenlick tried to respond, but Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, acting as speaker in Kotek's absence, ruled that Greenlick had already used up his time. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, immediately moved for adjournment, bringing a swift end to the back-and-forth.

The House did not hold remonstrances during its subsequent floor sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.

Nearman did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.