Kansas Capitol Police called to contentious anti-vaccine hearing at Republican’s request

Tribune Content Agency

TOPEKA, Kan. — Capitol Police were called into a Kansas Senate Committee Tuesday after a state senator said she felt threatened by a Kansan testifying on a bill.

During a Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee hearing on a bill that would create expansive exemptions for vaccine requirements, Lauren Shiffman, a Lenexa mom testifying in favor of the bill, called for Republican support in a way that appeared aimed at Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican.

O’Shea has been a vocal opponent to anti-vaccine measures since joining the Legislature in 2021. The 30-year-old senator is one of the youngest members of the Senate and the only woman in the chamber under the age of 40.

“I speak to Republicans in this room, especially one over here, please follow your party,” Shiffman said before looking in O’Shea’s direction while walking away.

O’Shea claimed Shiffman’s husband pointed directly at her and said she was talking to her while Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican who supported the bill, told them good job. Steffen said he didn’t have time to talk when asked about the incident.

Reached over the phone Tuesday, Shiffman said the man that pointed at O’Shea was not her husband and said she was not threatening anyone.

“I was not threatening anybody. I did not address anybody specifically,” Shiffman said. “I said if there are Republicans in this room to please vote with your platform.”

O’Shea interrupted the hearing to say she felt uncomfortable and ask for a security presence. Sen. Beverly Gossage, the Eudora Republican who chairs the committee, initially dismissed her request, but Gossage ultimately asked for a Capitol Police officer posted outside the room to move inside for the remainder of the hearing.

The Capitol Police is a division of the Kansas Highway Patrol based in the Kansas Statehouse.

Meanwhile, the crowd in the room clapped and jeered O’Shea’s requests for protection.

After the meeting, O’Shea called for committee and legislative leaders to be held accountable for “inappropriate processes and behaviors.”

O’Shea said she would like to see the Senate embrace “serious deliberation, fair process, good policy and respectful and professional environment.”

“I don’t think we should allow the crowd to cheer or make remarks or do anything like that during committee meetings,” O’Shea told The Kansas City Star. “Amendments need to be prepared and written. I think we need time. Everyone needs time to be able to ask questions, to discuss, to dissent, to bring amendments, and there hasn’t been that.”

Speaking to reporters, O’Shea said this is not the first time Shiffman or other members of the anti-vaccine community have approached her in a “threatening” manner.

She has consistently opposed anti-vaccine legislation, stating that her constituents support vaccines. She said the anti-vaccine population was small and represented a “populist fad.”

O’Shea said she has raised concerns behind closed doors about her concerns with the rhetoric coming from the anti-vaccine community and the platform the Legislature offers them.

“Let’s just say I haven’t felt heard,” she told reporters.

As a young woman in the chamber, O’Shea said, she hasn’t felt she’s granted the same respect as her colleagues.

“There are times that I’m seen as like a daughter or granddaughter and there have been remarks made to me around that,” she said. “You just wonder how effective you can be.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Gossage said Shiffman had approached her crying and apologizing after the meeting.

“I said, you need to go say that to Sen. O’Shea,” Gossage said.

O’Shea said Shiffman never came to her office and that while Gossage came to her office after the meeting, she did not apologize.

Shiffman confirmed that she had apologized to Gossage, but said she had done nothing wrong.

“I had no intention of causing any disruption,” she said.

The request for security came in the middle of a rushed hearing in the final weeks of the legislative session. Prior to that, lawmakers had worked to quickly pass bills out of committee, often not taking time for discussion. Ultimately, less than 30 minutes in the meeting was left to discuss the anti-vaccine bill.

The bill would bar any child care facility, school or employer from questioning an employee who asks for a vaccine requirement exemption citing sincerely held beliefs. It would also remove the existing meningitis vaccine requirement for college students.

It’s part of a wave of anti-vaccine and anti-quarantine measures that have gained attention in the state Legislature since the COVID-19 pandemic. A separate bill blocking COVID-19 vaccine requirements in schools is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday.

Gossage defended the rushed nature of the hearing on the anti-vaccine bill, noting that she had only received the legislation less than a week prior and wanted to make time for a passionate group of Kansans.

“I got it in as soon as I could,” Gossage said.