SALEM — Cheri Helt is on the hot seat.
On Monday, the Republican representative from Bend will stand on the House floor as a chief advocate for a bill ending nonmedical exemptions for vaccinations required before children can attend school.
While backed by an overwhelming majority of the medical community, House Bill 3063 has drawn waves of public opponents to the Capitol and virulent opposition from many Republican lawmakers.
“I’ve become more accustomed to confrontation,” Helt said in an interview Thursday.
Since arriving in Salem in January, Helt has found herself a rare species in the Legislature: a moderate Republican.
Helt has voted with Republicans against statewide rent control and diverting part of the “kicker” tax rebate.
Though a member of the Joint Committee on Student Success, she voted against the panel’s $2 billion funding package, saying it hurt small business.
But Helt has voted with Democrats to support state taxes for Medicaid, a plastic bag ban and a gun control bill targeting domestic abusers and stalkers.
“I think of it as voting for good public policy rather than polarized politics,” Helt said.
But it is the vaccination bill that has turned Helt into a political lightning rod.
Early in the session, Helt signed on as a chief co-sponsor, one of two Republicans among 13 lawmakers who put their name on the bill.
Advocates pointed to the reappearance of measles, 19 years after federal health officials had announced in 2000 that it had been eradicated.
“I believe in science, the safety of our children and in sensible, fact-based public policy,” Helt said when the bill was introduced in February.
The legislation to remove philosophical, personal and religious exemptions for vaccines is backed by Democratic leaders in the Legislature. Gov. Kate Brown has promised to sign the bill into law.
The legislation galvanized Oregon anti-vaccination activists, who turned out in droves for legislative hearings, organized statewide marches March 30 and held a rally at the Capitol on April 23. Lawmakers received a tsunami of calls, emails and visits to their Capitol and district offices.
Helt said she knew there would be vocal opposition, but the volume of activity has been a surprise.
“I didn’t think this was a light issue, but it has been more contentious than I would have thought,” Helt said. “It has brought a lot of comment.”
Some of it has come from her Republican colleagues and GOP staff, which have ranged from strong opposition to personal attacks.
“I am not only a ‘NO’ I’m a ‘HELL NO!!’ on HB 3063,” said a tweet last week from Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer.
Some of the harshest words have come from Jonathan Lockwood, spokesman for a trio of conservative lawmakers — Post, Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls.
Like many opponents, Lockwood refers to HB 3063 as the “forcible injections” bill.
“Rigidity, falsehoods, close-mindedness and putting profits ahead of people are not Oregon values,” Lockwood tweeted Friday.
While Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, has been Lockwood’s go-to target as the legislation’s “chief architect” who he says has “lied and lied and lied” about the bill, he doesn’t hold back when commenting on Helt.
“Cheri Helt is simply ungraciously clueless, clearly doesn’t understand the bill and is vehemently unwilling to listen to anyone in her party, the medical field or district,” Lockwood said Saturday.
In public, opponents have mostly focused their criticism on Democrats who control the Legislature. But on social media, bill opponents have accused Helt of being in the pocket of “Big Pharma” and complicit in “back room deals” on the bill.
Helt has become used to the vitriol, she says. She says she has talked with opponents regularly over months of debate. She says she has taken some of their concerns to heart — such as amending the bill to put off the mandatory requirement for a year.
“I think it is really important that I listen and that I made myself available,” Helt said. “I think that has shown through in the legislative process. Amendments have been made to the bill a number of times. It’s a better bill because of those amendments.”
Though acknowledging that few of her Republican House colleagues will likely vote with her, Helt said she is ready for the debate.
“I am looking forward to Monday and have the opportunity to vote on the bill,” she said.
With the 2020 Oregon primary just slightly over a year away, anti-vaccine activists have promised that lawmakers supporting the bill will pay a political price at the polls next year. Helt has said she will run for reelection.
Regardless of the vaccination bill, Helt could attract opponents in the primary and general elections.
Deschutes County Republican chair Paul deWitt offered his personal opinion, saying he was not speaking for the county party. He downplayed the impact of the vaccination bill but said Helt’s overall voting record will be open to debate.
“It is premature to say whether Cheri will have a primary challenger,” deWitt said. “While I disagree with her position on gun control, I do not have a problem with the mandatory vaccination legislation she has co-sponsored. I am more interested in her position on the proposed carbon tax. How she comes down on that will go a long way to impacting my decision about supporting her reelection.”
Helt has said she has not made a decision on how to vote on controversial legislation such as the carbon pollution program and a sweeping gun control bill. She says she will wait until the final bills come to the House.
If Helt wins the primary, she can expect a push by Democrats to win a seat where they have a 6,500 voter registration advantage over Republicans.
“Clearly, Central Oregon Democrats will have an advantage in 2020,” said Molly Woon, deputy director of the Democratic Party of Oregon. “With Democrats poised to take back the White House, we don’t see enthusiasm amongst Central Oregon voters waning anytime soon.”
Helt says she’s very aware of the buffeting on her right and left but says it comes with the job.
“Representing a swing district is much different than a regular seat that usually votes for one party,” Helt said.
While no one will be happy with all of her votes, Helt said, representing Bend makes it easier to vote her conscience.
“I’m not looking through a partisan lens,” she said. “I’m not looking at how a vote might help my reelection.”
How her time on the hot seat impacts her political future is something to worry about next year.
“I’m going to do the best I can and don’t look back,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, email@example.com