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
"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
"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
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
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