Posted: April 8, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

By a lopsided margin, the Senate Republicans voted not to relax the smoking ban and thereby helped to hand a sweet victory to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat, on the issue that has come to define her administration.

Minner, despite her reputation for hard-line partisanship, did better on the other side of the aisle than her own as the smoking bill went down, 7-14, in the 21-member chamber. The split for the majority Democrats was 5-8, and for the minority Republicans, it was 2-6.

Immediately after the vote, Republican Party leaders were groaning in private but saying nothing in public. It is bad form to attack your own legislators, even when they have handed the party a setback in the campaign to deny Minner a second term in the 2004 election.

Even William Swain Lee, the leading Republican candidate for governor, remained as circumspect as a judge, which he once was.

"The smoking bill has positives and minuses, and we'll find out about it on Election Day," Lee said.

Lee says that unlike Minner, he probably would not have signed into law the Clean Indoor Air Act, the legislation that has outlawed smoking since late November in restaurants, bars and casinos. He considers it ill-conceived, a law with an admirable goal to reduce smoking but costly to Delaware's economy and the state's finances at a worrisome time when money really matters.

Republican leaders would have liked to see Minner in the crosshairs, forced to a decision on a veto, and not let off the hook by a Senate vote. The House of Representatives earlier had passed the bill that would have eased the ban by allowing smoking in bars and parts of casinos, but it needed Senate approval, as well, to get to Minner.

Minner was in wonderful humor at a press conference she called after the Senate roll call, although not gloating. She would not even say that she considered the vote a victory.

"It's expected," she said. "I said all along I thought the Senate would take a good look at it, and it would not come to my desk."

Minner was feeling so good, she did not mind losing a bet to Gregory B. Patterson, her communications director. They bet dinner on whether reporters still would try to get her to say whether she would have vetoed the bill, had it come to her. Minner said they wouldn't. Patterson said they would.

 They did. Patterson gets paid to know what the press is thinking, so it looks like he earned his paycheck this time around.

Minner still would not say publicly whether she would have vetoed the bill, although she was said to tell legislators privately that she would.

As much as the political leadership is inclined to regard the smoking bill in partisan terms, there were other forces here.

The vote was described as health versus the economy. It was said to set the wage-earners of sin against the body-parts people -- the gambling, smoking and drinking interests against the health advocates like the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.

"It's a big victory for the health advocates," acknowledged Robert L. Byrd, a lobbyist who represents the casino interests. "They're to be commended. They did a good job."

Above all else, the smoking ban conjured up one of those classic upstate/downstate divisions. In both the Senate and the House, upstate legislators largely voted in favor of the smoking ban and downstate legislators largely voted against it.

It is this division that has given state Republicans some hope. They argue that Minner, a downstater from Milford, has hurt herself politically by going against her base -- particularly on an issue that has attracted perhaps more public attention than any other involving the governor.

The Senate debate itself was something of a letdown, like a rerun of a movie seen too many times before. The arguments have grown familiar, and although there was a perception the vote would be close, those in the know were aware the bill would not pass. There was no suspense.

There was a notable exchange with a 13-year-old seventh-grader from Maryland, however. Sen. David B. McBride, an upstate Democrat who favors the smoking ban, brought in young Craig W. Raphael to show off his science fair project on the hazards of secondhand smoke.

Some senators decided to take the kid on. Finally! Someone it looked like they would have a fighting chance against.

Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., a downstate Democrat who was floor-managing the bill, asked the kid whether he had thought about the people who were losing their livelihoods because of the smoking ban, and the kid calmly replied, "People can always have another chance at their jobs, but they can't have another chance at their health."

The Senate should have taken a page from the lawyers' book. Lawyers know never to cross-examine experts, little old ladies and children.

In another memorable moment, Sen. Karen E. Peterson, a rookie Democrat, gave her maiden speech to explain why she would vote to relax the smoking ban, the only upstater to do so. She was praised by both Democrats and Republicans for what she said.

Peterson said she could have supported the smoking ban, which would have satisfied the anti-smokers in her district, or she could have tried to repeal it, which would have been in the interest of the smokers, but through this bill, she could represent everyone in her district because both smokers and nonsmokers would have places to go.

Despite the sizable 2-1 Senate vote against relaxing the ban, the fight is not necessarily over. As part of a tax package to avoid a deficit in the next fiscal year, Minner wants more revenues out of the casinos. Byrd, the lobbyist, said the casinos will be looking for concessions in exchange -- like the return of a smoking section.

Minner, however, is disinclined to deal. "We have submitted a [tax] bill already," she said.

Byrd is not expected to be deterred. He is well-schooled in the ways of Legislative Hall, where it is known that the only way to make people go away is to tell them "yes," or else they will be back.

Byrd is still hearing "no," so expect him back.