Not surprisingly, last Friday's Minneapolis City Council meeting was dominated by the smoking ban ordinance, which burned up nearly two hours of debate. What was surprising was the margin of the ultimate vote, 12-1, and the fact that the occasion spurred some of the most thoughtful discussion the current council has seen.
Sure, there was some thudding rhetoric, mostly in the form of specious figures on how many Minneapolitans actually favor an outright ban of smoking in bars and restaurants. Here, the council was obviously appealing to the roughly 70 smoking-ban advocates who filled the chambers. These crusaders spent much of the time sighing and tut-tutting whenever anyone spoke of a compromise. (Three different amendments that would allow smoking in some bars, based on the ratio of alcohol and food sales, went down in narrow defeats.) It was hard to imagine that anyone in the crowd actually spent much time in bars.
Council veep Robert Lilligren, in contrast, worked as a bartender, mostly at the Minneapolis Hyatt, for 20 years, and it was he who undercut the argument that the city needs a ban to protect the health of those employed in the hospitality industry. Lilligren ridiculed the image of the helpless, smoke-sucking waitron. "I was sure that it was my choice to work as a bartender," he said.
"There are only three more polarizing issues than this," Lilligren continued later. "Same-sex marriage, a woman's right to choose, and who won the last election." He was dubious about the motion on the floor: "[Smoking is] an unhealthy activity," he said, "but we have a right as Americans to participate in risky behavior."
In the end, though, Lilligren, like many others on the council who opposed a ban, caved in to what he called "my lefty liberal friends." Lilligren conceded after the vote that there's not much political will to vote "no" on a smoking ban. And he noted that activists spent "tens of thousands of dollars" on direct mail, literature drops, and phone calls in his Eighth Ward alone.
"I was trying to find some compromise," Lilligren lamented. "But there has to be a winner and a loser. That's activism these days."