For Incoming Freshman Rep. Robert Garcia, Vaccine Denial Hits Close To Home

Rep.-elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) speaks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus gathering at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on Nov. 18.
Rep.-elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) speaks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus gathering at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on Nov. 18.

Rep.-elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) speaks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus gathering at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on Nov. 18.

As mayor of Long Beach, California, Robert Garcia tried to turn his city into a model for how to respond to the COVID pandemic in 2020, with lockdowns, extensive public testing and a quick vaccine rollout. But it wasn’t easy.

Garcia, 45, lost both his mother and stepfather to the coronavirus in 2020, before vaccines became widely available. 

“It’s daunting to be in a situation where your parents are in the hospital, intubated — and you’re being screamed and yelled at by folks in our community, people in positions of power, about reopening their golf courses,” Garcia said in December in a farewell address.

That experience will guide him as he settles into his new job as the U.S. representative for California’s 42nd Congressional District, and his new role as president of the incoming Democratic freshman class.

“What has happened around misinformation, around the encouragement by people in positions of power, like [Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.] and others to attack our medical community to discourage vaccinations, is shameful,” Garcia told HuffPost in a recent interview.

“I don’t know that I can forgive some of these folks for what they’ve done to this country, and to just the belief in basic medical science,” he said.

Garcia’s fellow freshman Democrats elected him “class president,” a ceremonial title that is meant to give new members a voice in party decision-making.

He was an immigrant. I was an immigrant.Rep.-elect Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), on Superman

As class president, Garcia is poised to be one of the most prominent lawmakers in the 34-member class — one molded not just by the pandemic but also by the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“Many of us in our class are called to serve because of what’s happened these last few years,” he said. “We are a post-Trump class. We’ve seen the worst in leadership, the worst in government.”

Being freshman class president is often an early springboard for party leadership. Garcia has hired Robert Edmonson ― onetime member-office chief of staff to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ― to be his own chief of staff, which could also be seen as preparation for moving up. Garcia, however, declined to address this prospect.

“I’m thankful [Edmonson] is coming to work for a freshman,” Garcia said.

Garcia is emblematic of the increasingly diverse face of the national Democratic Party. He’s an immigrant, brought to America from Peru by his mother at age 5 and naturalized at 21. He’s also gay.

Both of those aspects of his life factor into his great passion outside of work: comic books. One of his early tweets after he won in November was a picture of the swanky, wood-paneled Library of Congress reading room for members of Congress.

“Ok y’all I’m freaking out,” he tweeted. “I can pull any comic book from what is the largest public comic collection in the country and read them here. Let’s go!”

The post got more than 40,000 likes on Twitter.

Garcia said he fell into comics first as a way to learn English. The character of Superman, in particular, spoke to him. “He was an immigrant. I was an immigrant,” he said.

“I think that love of helping others, love of country, being different, having to hide your identity — I was a closeted gay person for a long time — those things appealed to me in comics.”

Garcia’s no dilettante: He can talk knowledgeably about Rob Liefeld, the artist who helped launch the ’90s comic publisher Image, as well as artist-turned-DC Comics exec Jim Lee and longtime “X-Men” scribe Chris Claremont.

“I love the Mark Waid Flash run. That’s one of my favorite runs,” he said. “There’s just periods of time, too, that stand out to me, the Dan Jurgens Superman stuff. I love that era.”

He’s been to 20 San Diego Comic-Cons, the essential pilgrimage for fans of sequential art, and been in Hall H, the biggest hall where the splashiest events are held, about 10 to 12 times, he said.

It’s unclear when Garcia and the rest of his fellow members-elect will be sworn into office, given the ongoing woes Republicans are having in electing a speaker. But he’s prepared to take his oath of office as only a comic book geek could.

In a tweet, Garcia announced Tuesday that he plans to take the oath on a copy of the U.S. Constitution with three items underneath it: his citizenship certificate, a photo of his parents and, courtesy of the Library of Congress, a copy of the first issue of “Superman.”