Smoking bill loaded with '06 election implications

Political Notebook

November 27, 2005|By LARRY CARSON

Political implications for next year's elections were as thick as bar smoke at the Howard County Council's long and sometimes tense public hearing last week on the proposed smoking ban in restaurants and bars.

Opposition from locally owned, independent restaurants and bars have led two council members - Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, a candidate for county executive, and east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes - to oppose the bill proposed by County Executive James N. Robey.

The two councilmen have adopted the awkward position of sympathizing with the 90 percent of Howard residents who don't smoke by repeatedly denouncing smoking as a dangerous habit they personally shun, while simultaneously attacking Robey's attempt to ban it in public places.

Merdon and Rakes made repeated declarations against smoking during the hearing, but also sympathized with people like Mark Hemmis of Catonsville, who owns the Phoenix Emporium, a popular smoking bar on Ellicott City's Main Street.

Hemmis testified that he has emptied his children's college fund to make a balloon payment on his business loan, and he cannot afford to lose money.

"I've got two kids. I robbed them blind. A smoking ban is going to kill me. You know that," he told the councilmen.

Republicans charge Robey submitted the bill to boost his state Senate campaign. At the hearing, Merdon carefully questioned Robey, a Democrat, on why he waited until the last year of his second term to propose the bill.

Robey vehemently denies his bill is politically motivated, saying it was done purely for public health reasons.

Patrons of restaurants are often exposed to smoke despite the current law that requires physically separate smoking areas, he said. When people wait to be seated, when they seek out a restroom or when wait staff bustles through doors that separate the sections, smoke is allowed in.

"I waited so long because I wrestled with the same issues you are wrestling with," Robey said.

Merdon favors a bill submitted last week by Rakes that would ban smoking in new establishments but allow it where it exists now until the business changes ownership. But that carries a political risk, too.

By supporting Rakes, Merdon's giving Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat also running for county executive and a co-sponsor of Robey's bill, an issue with which to attack Merdon.

But it is Rakes - who opposes a ban despite having signed a pledge to support the idea as a candidate in 2002 - who sparked tense exchanges with anti-smoking witnesses at the hearing.

Rakes volunteered a new explanation about his signing the pledge, claiming he did not sign it until after the September primary election.

He told Glenn Schneider, legislative chair of the Howard County Smoke Free Coalition, he had not met him until after winning the primary.

"One of the first things you did was say, `Are you against smoking? Sign this.' I hope you can appreciate how elated I was winning a hard-fought election," Rakes told Schneider. "If somebody said, `Sign this check,' I probably would have signed that, too."

But Schneider, who testified for the bill, held his ground, replying that Rakes was given the pledge before the election, and had time to deliberate before signing it.

"You signed that pledge in August 2002, prior to the election. No one forced you to sign that pledge," he said. "You did sign that. I know you got votes" as a result, he said. "I was very happy to vote for you."

Schneider said he expected Rakes to stick to his pledge.

Rakes complained about fliers Schneider's group is distributing, urging his constituents to call their councilman on the issue.

Rakes called them "unfair, unnecessary and wrong," adding that he regards the tactics as "heavy-handed" and a "personal attack."

Schneider denied that, explaining that his group was simply informing the public and asking them to call Rakes and urge him to vote for Robey's bill.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican who opposes Robey's bill, jumped in to chastise Schneider for what he called "almost violent testimony."

Another confrontation came during testimony from John O'Hara of Bowie, who said he is president of the Maryland Group Against Smokers' Pollution. He said his parents died from smoking-related diseases, and he has a medical condition that makes him ill from smoke.

"We recommend to people who they should vote for," he said to Rakes, claiming that the group has helped defeat three elected officials in Washington.

"If I'm voted out of office because of my vote on this issue, then so be it," Rakes replied defiantly. "We need people to be leaders and do what is right."

O'Hara replied that if Rakes votes against the ban, "I promise you we will be working against you."

People who don't smoke, he said, "don't feel we should be second-class citizens," O'Hara said.

Although Robey and Rakes are on opposite sides on the smoking-ban bill, Robey defends Rakes' right to change his mind despite the 2002 pledge.

"If I changed my mind, I changed my mind. Any elected official has a right to change their mind," Robey said, though he quickly added he hopes Rakes will change it yet again.

Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agreed with Robey.

"If the smoking ban were a really, really big thing, and there were large groups for and against it and someone changed their mind, it might be a big thing," Norris said. "I don't see this as being one of those issues.

"We elect these people to use their brains. Occasionally, they actually do that. Positions are nuanced. I don't see the fact that an elected official changes their mind as a bad thing."

Meet the legislators

Citizens will get a chance to tell their local state legislators their opinion of 19 local bills slated for introduction in the January General Assembly session. A public hearing will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the County Council chambers in Ellicott City.

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