Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Top State Lawmakers Met with National Anti-Vax Leader in 2019

In June 2019, Robert Kennedy Jr. gave a speech in the Statehouse atrium claiming vaccines harm children, despite overwhelming evidence of their safety.

click to enlarge Senate Democrat Kenny Yuko (right) meets with anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr. in 2019. - Photo: facebook.com/kenny.yuko
Senate Democrat Kenny Yuko (right) meets with anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr. in 2019.

Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders in the Statehouse met in 2019 with Robert Kennedy Jr., a scion of the American political dynasty and a leading voice of anti-vaccination politics.

Kennedy, son of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, came to the Statehouse to speak in support of legislation prohibiting employers from requiring vaccination from their employees.

For years, Kennedy has trumpeted debunked claims that vaccines cause autism and similar fear mongering around immunizations. He has also accused of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates of a vague plan to use vaccinations to starve the human population.

In June 2019, he gave a speech in the Statehouse atrium claiming vaccines harm children, despite overwhelming evidence of their safety. A 2014 CDC report estimated that 20 years of childhood vaccinations saved the lives of 732,000 children and averted 21 million childhood hospitalizations from infectious disease.

Along with the rally, Kennedy attended meetings with DeWine, ranking Senate Democrat Kenny Yuko, then-Senate Majority Whip Jay Hottinger, and others. He also posted photos on the Children’s Health Defense Facebook account of the event.

“They are replacing America’s exemplary democracy with Medical Tyranny,” Kennedy said on the page, referring to state legislatures in California and New York.

“I am happy to report that Ohio is still a robust Oasis for the Resistance. Thank you to Ohio’s Republican and Democratic leaders.”

The legislation Kennedy came to support failed, but his meetings with political leadership reflects growing traction from anti-vaccination politics in Ohio’s political system. This week, lawmakers sent legislation to DeWine that would prevent schools from mandating COVID-19 vaccination for students and from treating vaccinated or unvaccinated students any differently in terms of infection control.

DeWine, through a spokesman, said the meeting occurred on June 27, 2019.

“Mr. Kennedy asked for the meeting. Governor DeWine worked with his uncle on several issues in the U.S. Senate and met with Mr. Kennedy as a courtesy,” DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said in a statement.

Photos attached to the Facebook post depict DeWine intently listening to Kennedy.

On the Senate floor, Hottinger and Yuko granted Kennedy what’s know as a “point of personal privilege,” in which Senators recognize guests like former lawmakers or high school athletes after a big win.

Hottinger praised Kennedy at the time for his efforts “working on children’s health issues.” He did not respond to inquiries.

Yuko praised Kennedy at the time for “accomplishments galore” and touted pictures of the visit on his Facebook. In an interview, he said he had no regrets about the day in hindsight. For one, Yuko said, he’s a Kennedy — a descendant of one of the most beloved families in American Democratic politics with his own accomplished history as an environmentalist.

Moreover, Yuko, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, said everybody has a right to their own opinions. He denied any connection between the work of Kennedy and the national problem of American hesitancy toward vaccination against COVID-19.

Since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began Dec. 14, fewer than 48% of Ohioans have began the vaccination process against the disease, which hospitalized more than 60,000 residents and killed more than 20,000.

In the House, former Rep. Ron Hood and current Rep. Jamie Callender introduced Kennedy as well. Callender, in an interview, said RFK is a friend. They met when Callender was working with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (RFk Jr.’s sister) on an anti-bullying campaign with Peter Yarrow, of the band, Peter, Paul and Mary.

Callender, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, said he and Kennedy may disagree on issues, but even today, Callender wouldn’t shy away from doing it all again.

“As far as recognition from the floor, his uncle was president of the United States and assassinated,” he said. “His father was very close to becoming president and was assassinated. His family has spent a lifetime in public service.”

According to Kennedy’s Facebook post and accompanying photos, he went on to meet at the Statehouse with the following representatives that day at a “legislative lunch caucus:” Republican Reps. Bill Dean, Derrick Merrin, Scott Lipps, Candice Keller, Ron Hood, George Lang and Kyle Koehler, and Niraj Antani. Both Antani and Lang have since ascended to the state Senate.

‘Tragically wrong’

Kennedy launched what was originally called the World Mercury Project in 2016, which would later be renamed Children’s Health Defense. The organization links a spread of diseases to vaccination.

Like many in the anti-vaccination movement, Kennedy and Children’s Health Defense have since refocused on COVID-19. This includes sowing misinformation about the virus, as well as mitigation measures against the virus like masks and vaccination.

In 2019, RFK Jr.’s two siblings and his niece wrote an open letter published by Politico, calling him “tragically wrong” on vaccines and criticizing his “campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases.”

The next year, his organization paid for more Facebook ads spreading misinformation about vaccines than any other buyer, according to a review of Facebook ad sales data conducted by the journal Vaccines.

The Children’s Health Defense site is awash in dubious claims about vaccines. It claims they are ineffective in preventing disease, are dangerous and sometimes lethal to those who take them, and profitable for the health care and pharmaceutical industries that cover up the truth.

Kennedy, through a CHD spokeswoman, declined an interview request.

The bill Kennedy came to Ohio to support ultimately failed. Currently, amid a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, the House Health Committee has held five hearings in less than a month on a broader, anti-vaccination bill.

The legislation, the subject of heavy lobbying from two anti-vaccination political groups in Ohio, would prohibit any college, business, hospital, insurer, or other employer from requiring or asking about vaccination from any customer or employer. At one hearing, a physician who spoke in support of the bill claimed COVID-19 vaccines magnetize their recipients and “interface” with 5G towers, alongside roughly 70-minutes worth of similarly outlandish claims.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal and republished here with permission.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.