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Wichita union leader compares vaccine mandates to Holocaust in legislative hearing

The Kansas House Education Committee Chair says to expect no new school funding formula this year.
Stephen Koranda
Kansas Public Radio

The comments were from Cornell Beard, president of the Wichita district of the Machinists union. The union is fighting an employee vaccine mandate by Spirit AeroSystems.

TOPEKA — A Wichita labor leader compared President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the Holocaust that killed millions of Jews, and a top Republican lawmaker from Wichita seemed to agree with the comparison.

The comments from Kansas House health committee Chair Brenda Landwehr and Cornell Beard, president of the Wichita district of the Machinists Union, came as a legislative committee launched an effort to find ways for the state to fight Biden's policies.

Biden’s mandates could affect as many as 100 million people, including health care workers, employees of government contractors and employees in companies with more than 100 workers.

The local Machinists Union is pushing back against a an employee vaccine mandate from Spirit AeroSystems, the Wichita-area's largest private employer. Spirit has said it must follow Biden's directive because the company is a federal contractor.

Beard, who is Black, gave the committee a written statement accusing people who won't work with others who are not vaccinated of "preserving and perpetuating the ideology of a modern-day racist.”

“We’re basically saying you’re the modern-day Jew,” Beard told the committee in person. “You’re gonna wear that star … and we don’t give a damn if you complain about it or not.”

Beard, who said he's vaccinated, referred to the yellow star that the Nazi government in Germany forced Jews to wear before and during World War II.

Landwehr thanked him for his comments then later said the remarks made during the committee hearing reminded her of comments in a Holocaust documentary suggesting that the Nazis told Germans, “We’ll take you all down a path.”

“Now do I believe that that’s what we’re trying to do? I hope not. Because this is America, and I don’t want to lose hope in it,” she said.

No one on the committee objected to the analogy during the committee's meeting. Democratic Rep. Vic Miller, of Topeka, said afterward that he didn't “get the reference.”

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, called the comparison between the Holocaust and vaccine mandates "odious and historically ignorant and offensive.”

“It’s absurd to even say it,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be put into prison. Nobody’s going to be sent to concentration camps."

The Kansas City area's Jewish Community Relations Bureau put a statement on its Facebook page calling such comparisons “sickening displays of ignorance and antisemitism.”

"This is Holocaust distortion, and it has no place in the legislature," the statement said.

The legislative panel — the joint Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates — heard testimony Friday and Saturday, most of it from critics of the mandates. Republican lawmakers already have concluded that Biden’s mandates violate people’s liberties and will damage the economy. Their goal is to find ways for Kansas to resist effectively.

The committee plans to wrap up its work by Thanksgiving.

During Friday's hearing, Beard described himself as a conservative Democrat, and he has criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for not making public statements about the mandates. Her office has said Kansas still has not seen all of the details from the Biden administration.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican who serves on the committee, said the comparison to the Holocaust shows that for vaccine mandate critics, “They feel like it’s life and death.”

The Republican president of the West Virginia Senate, a GOP Maine House member and the Oklahoma Republican Party in recent months likened vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany, an infamous Nazi doctor who did experiments on Jews and the persecution of Jewish people by the Nazis.

Last year, a Kansas county Republican Party chairman who owns a weekly newspaper apologized for a cartoon posted on the paper’s Facebook page that equated an order from Kelly to wear masks in public with the Holocaust.

After Friday's committee meeting, Landwehr denied to reporters that she compared vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and again mentioned the documentary.

“I took offense to, ’We all should follow down a path,” she said. “And having just gone through a documentary over the whole Holocaust, it brought me back to thinking of the Jews being marched to the incinerators.”