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Maine GOP Lawmakers Draw Scorn While Trying To Ride Vaccine Mandate Backlash

Roughly 400 people showed up at the State House Tuesday to protest Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ recent mandate that healthcare workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Roughly 400 people showed up at the State House Tuesday to protest Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ recent mandate that healthcare workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.

In this week’s Pulse: Republicans trot out Nazi tropes during anti-mandate rally; Sen. King tests positive; the Afghanistan fallout continues; the field narrows in CD-2 GOP primary.

When Democratic Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that Maine health care workers will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1, it was immediately clear that yet another skirmish in the pandemic political wars was imminent.

Yet, the events of the past week showed the perils of certain elected officials trying to draft off the backlash.

Hundreds gathered for protests in Portland last weekend. More showed up to a demonstration in Augusta on Monday.

According to various media accounts of those events, actual health care workers showed up to express their concerns about the vaccine requirement. Other participants took aim squarely at the governor, and they brought with them an assortment of signs — some scrawled with crude vulgarities — to say so.

But a second rally in Augusta, held Tuesday at the State House, marked a turning point that might not be particularly helpful to either the cause of vaccine hesitant health care workers — already a distinct minority in the workforce, according to state-mandated survey of vaccine uptake — or the governor’s political opponents.

The event began similarly to the ones that preceded it. Several health care workers explained why they opposed the vaccine requirement. Rhonda Murray, the director of nursing at Horizons Living & Rehabilitation Center in Brunswick, who wore a mask, said that she jumped at the opportunity to get vaccinated when health care workers were put at the front of the line in December. She said she has a range of comorbidities, so it made sense for her. But she worried that the requirement would prompt her colleagues to leave the workforce at a time when staffing was already tight.

"(Gov. Mills) is talking about keeping the hospitals empty. Well, good luck with that, because we got to empty our building because we're not going to have enough staff to take care of our residents," Murray said.

It was after Murray surrendered the microphone that the event took a turn.

Several Republican legislators took over, casting themselves as “warriors” for the anti-mandate workers.

“To be clear, this is war!" Rep. Laurel Libby, of Auburn, declared.

Before encouraging health care workers to quit their jobs in a show of unified defiance, Libby asserted that the fight wasn’t about anti-vaccination, but individual freedom.

Libby has stated that position before. Last year, she was part of a people’s veto campaign that unsuccessfully attempted to overturn a law mandating certain inoculations for schoolchildren (Voters rejected overturning the law, 72% to 28% — a margin that correlates with adult vaccination rates for COVID, according to state data).

The veto effort had a variety of financial backers, notably chiropractors, natural medicine advocates and outright anti-vaccine adherents.

Among the latter: The Organic Consumers Association, a Minnesota nonprofit that’s funded by osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola. Mercola is considered one of the country’s leading spreaders and financial beneficiaries of anti-vaccine propaganda.

Maine’s own Christiane Northrup joins Mercola on what the Center for Countering Digital Hate calls the Disinformation Dozen, a list of the country’s top anti-vax conspiracy peddlers. Northrup, along with author Naomi Wolf, have partnered with several Republican lawmakers in recent months at events that coincided with efforts by public health officials to ramp up their COVID vaccination efforts.

Wolf, who has bizarrely and baselessly asserted that the COVID vaccine changes people’s DNA and loads people’s bodies with tiny robots equipped with 5G antennas, has been banned from several social media platforms. So has Northrup.

However, Northrup recently appeared at a far-right event in Belfast alongside Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred. Kevin Jenkins, another member of the Disinformation Dozen, also attended the Belfast event.

Sampson acted as a quasi-emcee partway through the Tuesday demonstration at the State House, and introduced several Republican lawmakers. She proceeded to compare the COVID vaccine to medical experiments performed by German doctors during the rise and fall of the Nazis. She then claimed that the governor and her sister, former Maine CDC director and current MaineHealth vice president Dora Anne Mills, were reincarnated versions of the Nazi doctors who performed brutal and unethical experiments on imprisoned Jews during the Holocaust.

Sampson’s remarks were widely condemned after they were shared on Twitter by Maine Public. But as of Thursday evening there were no condemnations by anyone in the Maine Republican Party, or the GOP’s legislative leadership.

In fact, Assistant House Minority Leader Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, attended the same event Tuesday and urged the crowd to vote for Republicans in the 2022 election. He too deployed the Nazi trope, portraying the current Democratic majority as an oppressive regime hellbent on crushing individual liberty.

He co-opted a famous quote by German concentration camp survivor Martin Niemöller to make his point.

By then it was clear that several Republican lawmakers viewed the backlash to the vaccine mandate for health care workers as an organizing opportunity, an effort to sweep the vaccine hesitant into the broader GOP coalition for next year’s midterms.

It’s unclear whether that effort will be successful.

National polls show strong majorities of Americans support vaccine mandates by private employers (The Maine Hospital Association, which represents the state’s hospitals, backs the governor’s vaccine requirement, as do many of the state’s largest health care providers).

The COVID States Project, a consortium run by Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities, published a midsummer poll finding that 64% of Americans approved of vaccine requirements for all Americans — not just targeted by industry.

Sen. Angus King tests positive

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King announced Thursday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

He became the sixth member of Congress to test positive this month amid a surge in the highly transmissible delta variant. Three senators, including King, announced they had tested positive on Thursday.

King, 77, was vaccinated earlier this year when members of Congress became eligible. According to a written statement from his office, he took a test after experiencing mild symptoms.

“While I am not feeling great, I’m definitely feeling much better than I would have without the vaccine,” he said in a statement. “I am taking this diagnosis very seriously, quarantining myself at home and telling the few people I’ve been in contact with to get tested in order to limit any further spread.”

Despite experiencing mild symptoms, King added that he’s taking the diagnosis seriously. In 2019 he underwent radiation treatment for residual prostate cancer, his third cancer diagnosis.

“I will keep everyone posted in the days ahead of the healing process, but I urge everyone to remain vigilant, follow the guidance from health professionals, and get vaccinated if you haven’t been,” he said. “While Maine people and Americans are ready to move past COVID-19 and return to our normal routines, the virus is not done with us yet. We must all continue to look out for one another through our words and actions, and remain united against this dangerous disease.”

Recent studies published by the U.S. CDC this week suggests that vaccine protection from infection against the coronavirus declined amid the surge in the delta variant. However, the vaccines remained highly effective against the worst symptoms and prevented hospitalizations in most instances.

Those studies prompted the Biden administration to develop a plan for booster shots for people roughly eight months after receiving their second shots of the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.

Senators began receiving their first shots of the Pfizer vaccine in mid-December of last year.

Afghanistan fallout

Earlier this spring, King was among several members of Congress who urged the Biden administration to develop a plan to evacuate the U.S. military’s Afghan allies before withdrawing from the country.

On Monday, as chaos arrived along with the Taliban takeover of the Afghan government, King acknowledged that the pullout was fraught with challenges, but he questioned the Biden administration’s strategy. His spokesman, Matthew Felling, released a statement indicating that the senator would use his positions on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees to determine “how our plans and expectations for the Afghanistan people after a trillion dollars, thousands of lives lost, and twenty years were so at odds with the reality we’ve seen play out over the last several weeks.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was more critical of the Biden administration, calling the still unfolding situation “as awful as it was avoidable.”

On Thursday both senators signed a letter telling the Biden administration to quickly evacuate Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their families, and to quickly implement a new law co-sponsored by King that would streamline the application process.

“We appreciate that this effort has already brought 2,000 Afghans, including primary SIV applicants and their families, to the United States. However many more remain,” the letter signed by 55 senators reads. “The Taliban’s rapid ascendancy across Afghanistan and takeover of Kabul should not cause us to break our promise to the Afghans who helped us operate over the past twenty years and are counting on us for assistance. American inaction would ensure they become refugees or prime targets for Taliban retribution.”

President Joe Biden has pledged to evacuate all remaining American citizens — estimates vary, but that could be as high as 10,000 people. He’s also hoping to remove between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghans who assisted the U.S. military during its 20-year occupation of the country.

Stewart drops out of GOP primary

State Sen. Harold “Trey” Stewart, of Presque Isle, announced Thursday that he’s bowing out of the GOP primary for the right to challenge 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat.

Stewart’s withdrawal follows the recent announcement by former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin that he’s getting into the race. In a written statement, Stewart said he was dropping out in deference to Poliquin, his “friend and mentor.”

Stewart’s announcement makes Poliquin’s path to the GOP nomination unquestionably easier. It might be outright assured if state Rep. Michael Perkins, of Oakland, also withdraws.

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.