In the end, no butts about Benson’s smoking-ban vote

In a deceptively close call to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, here's how the swing voter made up his mind

The Minneapolis City Council had two swing votes on an all-out smoking ban in bars and restaurants -- Councilmembers Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) and Scott Benson (11th Ward) -- and on a key vote, they swung in opposite directions.

Lilligren, a former bartender who credits that job with giving him a leg up in the world, sided with those favoring an exemption for bars selling 70 percent or more alcohol.

Benson tipped the balance to defeat the amendment on a 6-7 vote.

When the dust settled after the two-hour Council debate July 23, the smoking ban passed 12-1, with Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward) the lone dissenter. The lopsided vote hid the deep Council divisions and the significance of Benson's vote.

Had the "70 percent" compromise plan passed, more than 100 bars could let customers smoke, according to city estimates. In Southwest, exempt bars would have included the Uptown Bar, 3016 Hennepin Ave. S.; Ballentine VFW Post 246, 2916 Lyndale Ave. S.; the C.C. Club, 2600 Lyndale Ave. S.; Porter's Bar and Grill, 2647 Nicollet Ave. S.; and the Yukon Club, 320 W. Lake St.

Other exempt bars around the city included downtown and neighborhood institutions such as First Avenue, 29 N. 7th St.; the Cabooze, 913 Cedar Ave. S.; Mayslack's 1428 NE 4th St.; and the Hexagon Bar, 2600 27th Ave. S.

How does Benson feel about casting the critical vote to make those bars smoke-free?

"I am ecstatic that it prevailed and we will have a ban," Benson said, during a cell phone call from the Democratic National Convention in Boston. "I was always leaning toward a ban. I didn't like permanently exempting any group."

The deciding vote

From the outset, six Councilmembers backed a total smoking ban: Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Don Samuels (3rd Ward), Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward), Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward), Gary Schiff (9th Ward) and Dan Niziolek (10th Ward).

Undecided Benson got an earful on the issue.

"I would say this is the most intense lobbying effort we have had on an issue," he said. "The police chief was a pretty intensive lobbying effort, too, but I think this is certainly the most calls our office has received, the most e-mails."

Talk to Benson about how his thinking evolved, and the lingering question is why he remained coy until the last minute. The flood of communication he got was very one-sided -- perhaps 95 percent in favor of the ban, he said.

Advocates generated a lot of the calls, he said. Phone banks would call residents and tell them: "Scott Benson is undecided on smoking ban. Would you like to be connected to his office and express your opinion?" Benson said.

"Sometime there would be nobody there, but you could hear people in the background," he said.

Factoring out the advocate-generated calls, Benson said 11th Ward constituent calls far and away favored the ban.

From a parochial perspective, the 11th Ward doesn't have many bars -- and the ones it has are mostly smoke-free already, Benson said. (Westrum's, a smoking bar at 4415 Nicollet Ave., sent a petition, he said. It is across the street from the 11th Ward, but not in it.)

Benson said he heard the most influential argument for a smoking ban before the ban was introduced.

Benson spoke at an American Cancer Society event earlier in the year and listened to Dr. Stephen Hecht, a Cancer Society research professor, speak on second-hand smoke's harmful effects. "That was probably the most persuasive presentation I saw," Benson said.

If anything gave him pause, it was his discussions with Jeff Moritko, owner of Mayslack's, Mike Jennings, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association president and owner of several Downtown bars, and with the owner of Stub & Herb's, 227 SE Oak St.

Benson -- who is selling the liquor-distributor business he was involved in before becoming a Councilmember -- said smoking-ban advocates could point to studies showing bans don't harm the hospitality industry in general, but bar owners know their clients.

"And their clientele is unlikely to keep coming there if there is a smoking ban," he said. "I really bristled at the assertion that big tobacco was even involved in this debate at all. They [bar owners] are certainly not controlled by big tobacco. They are people who have invested their life savings in these businesses, and now they are threatened and I can understand why they would be anxious."

At most, Benson said he would have favored a time limited extension for some small numbers of bars to allow smoking.

"You couldn't find a way that was fair and reasonable and even-handed," he said.

Task force or done deal

Zimmerman introduced the ban in May. The Council postponed a vote for five weeks so a task force could study how a Minneapolis-only ban would affect bars and restaurants that could lose smoking customers to neighboring cities.

Opinions differ on the value of the task force, which ultimately recommended a complete smoking ban.

Mayor R.T. Rybak touted what he called its deliberative work. Business interests expressed frustration, saying the task force's membership was stacked against them.

Task Force member Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, "there was sort of patronizing and I would say somewhat callous disregard for any potential of economic hardship on the part of the small business owner."

"I don't think there was any serious consideration of any alternatives," he said in an interview, prior to the vote. "This was a pretty well-orchestrated deal."

Ortale, Jennings and Moritko opposed the task force recommendation, instead favoring a ban that would exempt bars whose revenues were more than 50 percent from alcohol.

The task force did delay the ban's start from Sept. 1 to March 31.

Rocco Forte, director of operations and regulatory services and task force chair, said the March 31 effective date gave the city time for public education and gave businesses time to develop marketing plans.

The smoking ban ordinance exempts outdoor spaces, hotel and motel guest rooms and tobacco use "as part of a recognized religious ritual or ceremony."

Mayor R.T. Rybak signed the ban July 27. The smoking ban ordinance provides for unspecified civil fines for violators. The Council will have to pass a separate ordinance to set fine amounts. The city also could suspend, revoke or not renew licenses for bar and restaurant owners who do not comply.