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You won’t often find At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz alone in a crowded room.
She has a special touch with people. And her big, loud personality makes her the life of the party.
But she’s been a bit lonely these days. Schwartz is having a hard time finding friends to help her defend smokers’ rights in D.C. restaurants and bars.
She quit cigarettes years ago. But her opinions on smoking ostracize her from some of her more health-conscious, or at least vote-conscious, D.C. Council peers. The anti-smoking crowd sees Schwartz as a villain, blocking their dream of pushing nicotine fiends out the door.
Two smoking-ban bills are bottled up in Schwartz’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment. Supporters of the bills say D.C. should join a growing list of smoke-free zones. States as different as Massachusetts and Montana and big cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, ban the butt, not to mention D.C.’s neighbor Montgomery County. Even such smoking-crazed countries as Italy and Ireland have passed bans under the banner of worker protection.
Predictably cautious, District leaders waited to see how restaurants and bars in smoke-free places fared financially before jumping aboard the anti-smoking bandwagon—not a bad idea in a town that depends on the health of its hospitality industry. But now, the majority of the council finally sees the smoking ban as a no-brainer.
A survey by the American Cancer Society shows that almost 75 percent of D.C. residents polled support a ban. It’s an easy call for politicians who know most people see smoking as an icky, disgusting habit. Bashing smokers is good fun and carries almost no political risk.
Then there’s Schwartz, spouting a Patrick J. Buchanan–esque brand of “Don’t Tread on Me” wisdom.
“If you don’t want to be in a smoky environment, don’t put yourself there,” she says. “People have choices.” Schwartz points out that more than 200 eating and drinking establishments in the city are already smoke-free.
Schwartz is manning the barricades against the tyranny of government regulators and self-righteous do-gooders bent on destroying the American way of life. She raises concerns about the effects on businesses, as well as the unintended consequences, such as noise and litter, of pushing smokers onto the sidewalks. Her red-state rhetoric even includes a proud mention of her opposition to the city’s mandatory seat-belt law. Even Ralph Nader’s worst enemies wouldn’t try to pull that one.
“I’m a true civil libertarian,” Schwartz says. “I voted against the seat-belt law in the late ’80s,” she says. “That was 12 to 1.” Her protest vote means a lot more now, when she holds a committee chair.
She believes workers can choose to protect themselves by finding another line of work or taking a job in a smoke-free restaurant or bar. We do live in a free country, after all.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson co-introduced one of the smoking-ban bills with Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. A second bill, which includes some exemptions, was introduced by At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown. Mendelson says the free-choice argument is a smoke screen deployed by Schwartz and her philosophical brethren at the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “It’s not a question of choice. They feel it hurts restaurants,” he says. “You could make that same argument about voting rights. We could move somewhere else. People could give up their jobs. I don’t think that’s realistic.”
Schwartz is probably a fan of at least one law that restricts choice in the District: The federal law establishing an elected D.C. Council sets aside two at-large seats for the nonmajority party. One of them belongs to Schwartz, the other to independent At-Large Councilmember David Catania. As the lone Republican on the council, with a solid following across the city, she can keep her seat as long as she likes.
At least Schwartz has been consistent in her philosophical opposition to smoking-ban bills. Her lock on one of the non-Democrat at-large seats shields her from having to ride the shifting political winds like some other elected officials.
In 2003, Mayor Anthony A. Williams threatened to veto a smoking ban, saying he was concerned it would hurt the hospitality industry. These days, he’s over in the nonsmoking section, reading the latest economic studies on how bars and restaurants in other jurisdictions have weathered the bans. Predictions of disaster have proved wrong. His staff says the mayor’s position on smoking-ban proposals will be driven by the numbers, and most jurisdictions report that business has not been hurt.
The same year Williams threatened to oppose the ban, eight of Schwartz’s council colleagues either opposed the ban or stayed on the sidelines. Today, six members are co-sponsors of smoking-ban bills. A seventh—Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans—says he’ll vote for a ban. Evans has been cozy with business interests, but he’s taking the populist position now. Preparing to run citywide can change a ward councilmember’s perspective.
That kind of political maneuvering for 2006 is working against Schwartz.
She shouldn’t look for any help from council Chairman Linda Cropp, either. Cropp’s undecided on the smoke-free bills. But she has plans to meet with smoking-ban supporters and opponents in the near future. With a possible mayoral run the works for Cropp, she may even offer her own bill. And it won’t likely be a measure that rankles the city’s smoking-ban-supporting majority.
But with both smoking-ban bills in her committee, Schwartz is still in a position to thwart the anti-smoking forces while gaining a new friend. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is undecided on the ban—and he’s the committee swing vote. The other committee members know where they stand. Brown and Fenty are both sponsors of smoke-free workplace bills. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry opposes the ban.
That leaves Graham in his favorite position: deal maker. City-hall sources say he’s leaning toward supporting a smoking ban. But Graham is a tireless political horse trader. He’s likely to remain uncommitted as long as possible to see what he can get for his vote. Graham has scheduled a June 9 meeting in his ward to hear from constituents. He won’t comment on his position, but in a statement, he says he’s still weighing both sides of the issue.
Schwartz has scheduled a committee roundtable for June 14 and could hold a vote on the bills at any time. But she could also stall. During the last council session, after a hearing on smoke-free legislation, she never scheduled a vote. Instead she offered a bill to provide tax incentives for businesses that chose to ban smoking. She hasn’t budged from that position.
But smoking-ban partisans say the tide has turned in their favor. Angela Bradbery of Smokefree DC says Schwartz has been swamped by e-mails and calls from constituents since the first of the year. She thinks that with a solid council majority behind a smoking ban, Schwartz should step aside. “How long can she single-handedly hold this up?” Bradbery asks.
Schwartz may be isolated, but she’s unmoved.
“I don’t care. They’re trying to box me into a corner,” she says. “I don’t have to buy into that.” She refuses to promise that any smoking bills will come up for a vote.
So the anti-smoking forces are trying to find a way around Schwartz.
Mendelson says if Schwartz doesn’t move a bill, he’ll consider crafting a bill that sidesteps her committee. And Brown says he’s grown tired of watching Schwartz thwart the council’s majority. He’s prepared to defy his committee chair:
“In the next 30 days, if I don’t see any momentum on this bill, I’ll introduce emergency legislation.”
CROPP FOR SOMETHING IN 2006
Her condo on the Eastern Shore? Casual afternoons with her grandchild? Long walks with her husband? Forget about it.
On several occasions over the past year, Cropp mentioned the possibility of walking away from politics and spending more time with her husband, Dwight Cropp, and the rest of her family. Now Dwight will be busy working as her most trusted political adviser. Last week, Linda told LL that she will run for council chairman or mayor in 2006.
Most of the political chatter says Cropp is eyeing a mayoral run. Serving another term as the council’s great mediator doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to delay retirement.
She says she’ll make a decision on her future by September, but in the meantime, Cropp has been acting like a candidate—and not for the job she already has. When mayoral hopeful Fenty introduced a bill to create a $1 billion fund for school-building modernization, Cropp countered with her own plan two days later. Fenty’s bill won’t get much play when the chairman has a proposal on the table.
Also in the works: She’s brokering a deal between developers and housing advocates on a zoning change that would require that affordable housing be built whenever a ritzy development goes up.
Major initiatives on schools and housing are a good way to kick off a mayoral run and separate herself from the pack.
One sure sign Cropp is angling for higher office: She asked to have a new picture taken for LL’s files.
•Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange may be feeling a little insecure about his mayoral-exploratory efforts. “Outside forces” tapped into the results of a poll posted on his exploratory-committee Web site on April 29. A link to the results page, which was supposed to be behind the site’s firewall, was then sent around town—including to LL. Lucky recipients of the link could get live updates on the poll tally. Team Orange got wind of the leaked data at about 10 a.m. on March 30, when the poll went “inactive.” Orange-exploratory-committee spokesperson Curlie Williams says the councilmember was aware that his site had been “compromised” and took steps to correct the problem. By the afternoon of May 2, the poll was up and running again and apparently secure. Online polls are easy to manipulate by tricksters, so LL will refrain from sharing the leaked results. But the incident made it clear that dirty tricks are alive and well in D.C. politics.
•The latest victim of the mayor’s political-payback campaign is consultant and Fenty supporter Peter Rosenstein. He’s been involved with the Fenty exploratory effort almost since its inception. Rosenstein was informed March 19 that the mayor would not reappoint him to the University of the District of Columbia’s Board of Trustees. Rosenstein is vice chair of the board.
•Department of Human Services employees got a little lesson on the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo. Too bad the information was wrong. In an e-mail, Hispanic Program Manager Cecilia F. Bowen invited all department employees to check out a display in the director’s reception area erected “[i]n celebration of Cinco de Mayo (May 6).” She describes the day as “an observance of Mexican independence from Spain.” Not exactly. Cinco de Mayo is May 5 and celebrates an important victory over French forces in 1862. Mexico’s independence day is Sept. 15. Bowen, who says she is a native Spanish speaker, says the May 6 reference “was a typo.” Spokesperson Debra Daniels says the date was corrected “immediately.” She says the historical reference was not Bowen’s fault. “She got the information off of a Web site.” The display in the director’s reception area was headlined: “Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican independence day—but it should be!”—James Jones
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