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GOP Lawmaker Whose Wife Recently Died Responds To Criticism After Attending Vaccination Protest

Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, wears a face shield as the House meets at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Rep. Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, wears a face shield as the House meets at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

A Republican state lawmaker who recently attended an anti-vaccine-mandate rally at the Maine State House says his wife, who reportedly died after a long battle with COVID-19, was reluctant to get vaccinated because of “conflicting information.”

Rep. Chris Johansen, of Monticello, made the comment on Facebook in an apparent response to widespread news reports that he had attended last week’s rally shortly after the passing of his wife, Cindy Johansen.

Chris Johansen’s attendance has drawn a combination of contempt and bewilderment, yet is consistent with the couples’ outspoken resistance to public health precautions throughout the pandemic, including the COVID-19 vaccines that health officials say are highly effective in preventing hospitalizations and death.

Johansen did not speak at the August rally, which was billed as a demonstration against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ requirement that all health care workers get the COVID-19 vaccine. The event quickly devolved into a showcase of anti-vaccine misinformation that drew national media attention.

One of Johansen’s GOP colleagues, Rep. Heidi Sampson, of Alfred, compared Mills to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death known for performing experiments on Jews during the Holocaust.

Johansen, who has not responded to Maine Public’s multiple requests for comment, posted a comment Saturday that referenced his wife’s opposition to the vaccine.

Before her passing, Cindy Johansen made several Facebook posts that compared the three available vaccines to experimental drugs, despite backing from the Food and Drug Administration and from national and international public health authorities. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Monday received full FDA authorization for people ages 16 and older. It has emergency approval for people aged 12 thru 15.

The avatar on Johansen’s Facebook account says “I don’t care if you’ve had your vaccine.”

Downeast Direct Cremation, a crematorium in Bangor, posted Johansen’s death as Aug. 11. The Daily Beast reported Friday that an unnamed official with the Maine Republican Party confirmed her passing. Neither the party nor the House Republican Office would confirm her death to Maine Public last week.

Johansen’s death and the Johansens’ outspoken resistance to public health precautions and vaccines have become an acute illustration of how the pandemic has sharply divided hardcore partisans. It also shows how misinformation proliferates on social media as partisans seek confirmation of their political beliefs.

The deadliness of the disinformation about masks and vaccines has generated numerous headlines as deniers of the efficacy of both succumb to COVID-19.

At the same time, those deaths have sparked ghoulish schadenfreude among those who are increasingly angry at the unvaccinated or those who undermined public health experts trying to convince Americans to protect themselves.

Since her death, Cindy and Chris Johansen’s Facebook pages are littered with comments from posters who seem to take pleasure in her passing. Others admonished Chris Johansen for his participation in a rally last week that featured rhetoric that baselessly characterized the vaccines as experimental or part of a government plot to control people.

That rally featured speakers with whom Johansen has partnered before, including Sampson, who in May joined him in protesting the State House mask requirement by trying to enter the building unmasked. Sampson has spoken at several rallies that purport to be focused solely on vaccine requirements, but feature speakers who are known peddlers of vaccine disinformation and other far-flung conspiracies.

While speaking at one such event in Belfast in July, Sampson talked about building a “freedom network” of disparate groups, including anti-vaccine activists, to help Republicans win majorities in the Legislature next year.

“We’re gonna wake ’em up. We’re gonna be looking up. And then, we’re going to stand up and take action,” she said.

That appeared to be the goal of last week’s demonstration in Augusta, as Sampson and other Republicans attempted to draft off the backlash to vaccine requirements for health care workers by characterizing themselves as warriors for freedom of individual choice.

These demonstrations over the past few months show how pro-freedom rhetoric has converged with conspiratorial anti-vax views.

In April, Cindy Johansen encouraged her Facebook friends to attend a State House rally featuring Sampson and author Naomi Wolf. Wolf has been banned from several social media platforms for a range of false and bizarre claims about the COVID vaccines, including one alleging that they change a recipient’s DNA and load their bodies with tiny robots equipped with 5G antennas.

Wolf made several appearances on conservative radio stations while she visited the state. She has also been a guest of several Fox News personalities, including Tucker Carlson, the highest rated Fox host with an average of 2.9 million viewers.

The network has been widely criticized for platforming Wolf, and for allowing its personalities to encourage vaccine hesitancy by framing it as a form of government control and overreach, even as the Fox Corp. adopts pandemic precautions in the workplace and requires employees to notify the company of their vaccination status.

The Johansens' Facebook posts show support for efforts resisting the vaccine and other measures such as masks, designed to limit the spread of coronavirus. Chris Johansen has repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the pandemic. Last year he helped organize one of the first protests against the governor’s business and public gathering restrictions.

He and his wife reportedly contracted COVID-19 in mid-July, although he has since reportedly denied that he had the disease.

Cindy Johansen appeared to confirm that she had COVID-19 shortly thereafter when she began describing her increasingly severe symptoms. When a friend asked her what was wrong, Johansen responded with a three-word reply, “covid and asthma.”

Posts that same month suggest that neither of the Johansens were vaccinated against the disease.

Subsequent posts by Chris Johansen and his wife chronicled her deteriorating health, although few overtly mentioned COVID-19.

On Aug. 7, Johansen posted on Facebook, “It was all bad news today. Cindy has suffered several major setbacks.”

He did not post again until Saturday, Aug. 21, when he wrote, “My wife Cindy was reluctant to get the vaccine because of all the conflicting information we have been getting from day one.”

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