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
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
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 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
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
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
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