San Jose Mercury News

Freshman senator wins plaudits from colleagues

July 4, 2015

When word of a measles outbreak at Disneyland hit the nightly news six months ago, state Sen. Richard Pan began fielding calls from panicked parents. They worried that their children could be exposed to the infectious disease and wanted to know what he planned to do to keep them safe.

The just-elected senator from Sacramento toyed with the idea of new rules requiring schools to publicize their immunization rates so concerned parents would know which ones to avoid. But he soon realized that strategy wouldn't go far enough.

"We were sliding into trouble, and the real answer was staring me in the face," Pan, a pediatrician, recalled last week in his Capitol office.

Instead, he introduced Senate Bill 277, recently signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. It tightens California's famously loose rules on vaccination for schoolchildren, eliminating loopholes that allowed parents who are leery of the shots to avoid them by filling out "personal belief exemption" forms. The new law permits only medical exemptions.

No other legislation in recent memory has consumed the Capitol quite like this bill did. But those who know him well say Pan's calm demeanor and his clout as a "citizen lawmaker" who ran for office after a career in medicine prepared him for the ugly battle waged by the bill's zealous opponents.

"He handled the vitriol with patience and grace," said Jodi Hicks, a former California Medical Association lobbyist who worked on the bill. "As a pediatrician, he must be used to temper tantrums. Maybe that helped."

His coolness under fire also won over many of his colleagues.

"So much good work gets shelved because people fear what might happen when they take on a tough issue," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, a co-author of the bill. "When parents threatened him, bullied him, compared him to Hitler, Dr. Pan didn't back down."

After getting anonymous death threats, Pan was often escorted by Capitol security officers to and from hearings and floor votes on the bill.

Pan's critics, however, contend that the solution he devised with Senate co-author Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, was an overreach.

Dr. Robert Sears, a Capistrano Beach pediatrician known for his unorthodox views on childhood vaccination, pointed out that only 70 of 120 state legislators voted for the bill.

"If vaccines were so good that they should be forced on everyone, 120 legislators would have voted yes," he said.

Born in Yonkers, New York, and raised in Pittsburgh by parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan to study engineering, Richard Julen-Dah Pan began his career in medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, where Jonas Salk conducted research on the polio vaccine in the 1950s.

His first experience with an infectious disease came in 1991, when a measles outbreak in Philadelphia sickened 900 people. Patient zero belonged to a local church that had sworn off all medicine, but the highly contagious disease spread to the general public. Nine children died, he said.

"In medical school, we studied photos of measles. The professors told us we'd likely never see the disease in person, but I did," said Pan, who will turn 50 this fall. "It was awful."

After finishing medical school at the University of Pittsburgh and obtaining a public health degree from Harvard, Pan moved to Sacramento and accepted a faculty position at UC Davis, where he went on to direct the school's pediatric residency program.

Pan settled into Sacramento after meeting his wife, dentist Wen Li-Wang, on a blind date arranged by a close friend. They have two boys, ages 5 and 9, and Pan said keeping them and their classmates safe at school motivated him to carry SB277 this year.

"I'd spent my whole life fighting for children's health, so I knew this was the right thing to do," said Pan, who still volunteers at a Sacramento medical clinic one day a week. "How could I be deterred when I'd seen the danger of these diseases firsthand?"

By the time state health officials had declared the measles outbreak over in mid-April, 136 people in California had contracted the disease, 20 percent of them requiring hospitalization.

While there were no deaths in California from the measles outbreak, 16 California babies too young to be immunized have died of whooping cough -- a vaccine-preventable disease -- since 2010.

Pan said he decided to run for office five years ago after becoming frustrated with the budget gridlock that had become customary in Sacramento. A clinic he worked with was almost forced to close, and some of his young Medi-Cal patients had to halt their treatment because of the budget crisis, Pan said.

When he won his Assembly seat in 2010, Pan became the first Democrat to represent his solidly conservative district in close to 30 years.

Pan's decision to run for office didn't surprise Dr. Lisa Chamberlain, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine who has known him for 15 years.

"We both work with children from low-income families, and a lot of their biggest challenges are best addressed where Richard is sitting now -- in the Legislature," she said.

His political career, however, hasn't been without controversy. While serving in the Assembly, Pan was accused of skirting a state law that requires lawmakers to live in the districts they represent. Pan denied any wrongdoing, and the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office never pursued the matter.

Pan was also criticized for accepting $52,133 in per-diem payments that are offered to defray out-of-town lawmakers' living costs. Sacramento-area legislators typically don't accept the payments, and he stopped collecting them in 2013.

Vocal critics of SB277 have accused Pan and other legislators who voted for the law of colluding with pharmaceutical companies that donated to their campaigns.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Pan's Senate campaign raised $1.4 million, about $100,000 of which came from pharmaceutical and health product companies.

"Here is the evidence he accepted bribes," said San Jose chiropractor Keith Howe. "He's a sellout and a crook."

The senator dismissed the attacks. "I've been a lifelong champion of vaccination," he said. "Any suggestion of a subversive agenda is simply unfounded."

Pan's persistence should be commended, said former Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, whom Pan replaced in the Senate after winning election in November.

"Many people can come to Sacramento and take positions on legislation that are consistent with their districts," said Steinberg, who had supported Pan's Democratic opponent. "What really stands out is when a member takes on a tough issue and sees it through successfully. That's what he's demonstrated in his first year in the Senate."