Posted: March 19, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When the debate began Tuesday evening on the ballyhooed smoking bill, there were maybe a half-dozen kids in the gallery of the state House of Representatives with little blue paddle fans reading, "I'm a Fan of the Smoking Ban."

Somebody wearing an oversized death's head draped in black was up there, too, looking like the next stop could be an anti-war march.

That was about it. The public otherwise stayed away from Dover, sending an eerie message of indifference on what was supposed to be a matter of passionate and consuming controversy.

When the public cares, it comes. It always has -- whether it is driven to make itself heard about a back-room pay-and-pension deal for legislators, or for a "pill bill" creating a subsidy for prescriptions for the elderly, or even for new fishing regulations.

Instead, Legislative Hall looked the way it does most of the time -- like a private playground for the legislators and the lobbyists in thousand-dollar suits.

As a matter of fact, the lobbying was done in the usual way when it came time to round up votes on the smoking bill, H.B. 15, which is being pushed by bar and casino interests to loosen the smoking ban that went into effect on Nov. 27.

Dinners at Delaware Park in Stanton. Dinners at Michele's at Dover Downs. Dinners at The Buttery, a restaurant in Lewes.

It was enough to pass the bill, but just enough. The legislation got a bare majority of 21 votes in the 41-member House to send it along to the Senate. Rep. Bruce C. Reynolds, a New Castle area Republican, was absent and so didn't cast what was expected to be another "yes" vote.

The slim margin, while a victory, was also something of a setback for the bill's supporters. Private counts before the roll call had projected that 26 representatives would vote for it.

"We would have liked to have more than 21," said Robert L. Byrd, one of Dover's premier lobbyists who represents Dover Downs. "We got it through the House, and we'll go on to the Senate."

Senate action probably won't come quickly. Senators need time to get their dinners, too.

The House vote was perilous, creating all manner of divisions and potential consequences. It was regarded as a conflict between the wage-earners of sin, as in the gambling, drinking and smoking side, and what Legislative Hall regulars call the "body parts people," as in the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.

The chief backers of the bill were a couple of Republicans, Kent County Reps. Pamela J. Thornburg and George R. "Bobby" Quillen, and the chief opponents were also a couple of Republicans, northern New Castle County Reps. Robert J. Valihura Jr. and Deborah D. Hudson.

The roll call split largely along geographical lines with most lawmakers below the canal voting for it and most above voting against it, but political affiliation also played a role. While Republicans had a free hand to vote the way they thought their constituents wanted, the Democrats had additional pressure coming from a Democratic governor who has made it very clear she wants the smoking ban left alone.

The House has 29 Republicans and 12 Democrats, and eight of those Democrats voted with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. More than anyone else, the governor has come to be associated with the smoking ban, even though its authors are Republicans Hudson and Valihura, and it is being watched closely for effects on her re-election campaign for 2004.

In public pronouncements Minner has stopped short of an out-and-out veto threat, but she is said to be telling lawmakers in private she will veto the bill if she has to. It is a message that House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan is said to have used effectively in his caucus to persuade three-quarters of it to vote "no."

One of the greatest fears among legislators is a roll call that passes with a bare majority -- like this one -- because it exposes them to being targeted by political opponents as the critical vote. As the state saying goes, if it's good being first, it's not good being 21st.

The upshot of that is, today is probably not a good day to be state Reps. William I. Houghton or Bethany A. Hall-Long, a pair of New Castle County Democrats who voted against the governor and can be considered politically vulnerable. Houghton survived a scare in 2002 by winning a party primary by only 30 votes. Hall-Long is a rookie representative whose vote seems at odds with what she is -- a nursing professor at the University of Delaware.

The House vote was important enough for Minner to hold a press conference afterwards in her Legislative Hall office. "I'm a little bit surprised and disappointed they passed it," she said. "It is absolutely a health issue."

Minner may have been surprised and disappointed, but she did not seem particularly upset. After all, the 21-vote majority -- or 22, if Reynolds is counted -- is short of the 25 votes needed for a three-fifths majority to override a gubernatorial veto. There is also still the Senate to come, where the governor's fellow Democrats hold a 13-8 majority.

"I'm hoping that level heads in the Senate will prevail," Minner said. "In its current form, I would not like the bill."

If not upset, Minner clearly is keeping score. In her office she has a "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" game. All of the tails have faces on them. After the House vote, there were two tails pinned to the donkey's hind parts.

One was Pam Thornburg. The other was Bobby Quillen.