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Top N.H. House Republican's Claims Show Reach Of COVID Misinformation Among GOP Ranks

A routine hearing in the State House turned confrontational last week when the state's health commissioner called out a top Republican lawmaker, Rep. Ken Weyler, for spreading disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. The exchange — between Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette and Rep. Weyler, chair of the House Finance Committee — highlights a conspiracy-driven ideology tied to the pandemic that’s on the rise in state Republican politics.

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The exchange centered on Shibinette’s statement that the vast majority of COVID-related hospitalizations in New Hampshire are among unvaccinated individuals. Weyler countered, without citing any sources, that the vast majority of hospitalizations are actually for vaccinated people. Shibinette described Weyler’s claims as “misinformation” and a barrier to increasing vaccinations. At stake was $27 million in federal aid intended to boost vaccination efforts; Weyler and other Republicans on the Legislative Fiscal Committee put that on hold, saying they didn’t think it was needed.

The vote was emblematic of growing Republican leeriness of doing anything that could be seen as enabling federal efforts to address the pandemic, and Weyler is among the most outspoken advocates of that view. Speaking to NHPR Tuesday morning, Weyler was unapologetic and unstinting in his criticism — much of it not founded in data or science — about the efficacy and safety of COVID vaccines and government’s role in getting it to people:

“They want everybody to get the shot. Why? Are they getting paid off by Big Pharma? Is there something in the shot that’s going to help them control us? There’s lots of things I’m reading that make me very suspicious,” Weyler said.

To be clear: There’s no evidence that health experts are being paid off by the pharmaceutical industry, or that there’s anything in the vaccine intended to “control” people. Weyler, who’s about to turn 80 years old, also noted that he’s not been vaccinated for COVID.

“No, and I don’t intend to," he said. "I’ve had 25 years of flu shots. I believe I have antibodies."

Weyler is not new to New Hampshire politics. He has been in the Legislature for nearly 30 years, at times on the margins, and at times as a member of Republican leadership. These days, he has a central role: He leads the House Finance Committee, making him the top budget writer in the House. His politics are staunchly conservative, with a focus on low taxes and cutting what he considers government waste.

While many colleagues will tell you he can be genial, he’s also blunt and has espoused conspiracy theories and false information over his legislative career.

He’s also made clear his distrust of official sources of information, even those within the same government he helps lead. Asked where he gets information about the pandemic, he said he has plenty of his own reliable sources, but the federal government isn’t among them.

“Many people have sent me links to these things I’ve discussed,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve seen links from reports from all sorts of credible sources. But [Shibinette] is just listening to the CDC as far as I can see. And I don’t consider the CDC a credible source, or Dr. Fauci a credible source.”

As finance chairman, he holds one of the more high-profile jobs in the Legislature. Lots of funding for pandemic response flows through his committee. As chair, he literally holds the gavel and the microphone during spending debates. And as the exchange with Shibinette showed, the chair can set the tone and the agenda in high-profile debates.

Other top Republicans did weigh in on his spat with Shibinette, though they didn’t exactly condemn Weyler. Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement saying that “it’s dangerous and wrong to contribute to the spread of information” but he didn’t mention Weyler by name.

Contacted by NHPR Tuesday, the office of House Speaker Sherman Packard, who ultimately determines whether Weyler stays in the House Finance position, said Packard spoke to Weyler earlier the day and reminded him of “the importance of respecting information provided by our trusted health officials.”

But in Tuesday’s interview, Weyler seemed confident in his position: that state and federal health officials are not to be trusted and that it’s better to seek out his own sources of information.

‘There is no steady hand on the tiller,” Weyler said. “There is nobody in government you can trust.”

Last week, protesters gathered outside the State House echoing many of the sentiments and claims that Weyler is making. And there appears little difference between what these protesters say and what Weyler asserts. They all share a deep skepticism of official sources of data; a comfort with conspiracy theories; and a hostility towards the federal government.

This strain appears ascendant in the Republican Party, both among rank-and-file voters and in the State House. Many Republican-backed bills that lawmakers will take up next year — on vaccines, and COVID policy more generally — reflect this thinking. It may be premature to describe resistance to policies aimed at stopping the coronavirus as a GOP litmus test. But it is clearly an animating issue for Republican activists these days, and elected Republicans are trying to respond.

“We’re out here to try to help you, and now you’re attacking us,” Packard yelled when anti-vaccine protestors jeered him and other Republican lawmakers last week outside the State House.

Whether they know it or not, in Ken Weyler, those protestors have a kindred spirit inside the House, occupying one of the Legislature’s most powerful posts.

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