The anti-smoking ordinance is an unconscionable social experiment in an already sketchy economic environment; the Place 5 run-off boasts two good candidates, so no need to get ugly; and we report the news, not slurs.
My concern with the no-smoking ordinance is the certainty of its advocates: The ordinance is about health; it is a restriction based on scientific fact instead of either morality or opinion. Tobacco smoke is bad for you. Secondhand smoke is almost as deadly. Studies have proven this. Thus, this legislation should not even be considered controversial. Even if some segments of the population's rights are restricted, it is because of the truth, not opinion.
Now, there are some studies that dispute the effects of secondhand smoke, which is of some concern. Even if those effects are indisputable, though, this direction is troubling. What are the limits to legislative restrictions based on health? Based on science? Based on truth? Will the obese lose legal protections? Can fried foods and red meat be that far behind? Is the banning of not just fur, but leather as well, out of the question? These are concerning issues that demand open, intense discussion in a free but responsible society.
What is a lot less debatable is the hypocrisy of the council members who vote in favor of a smoking ban. Currently, supporting local businesses is all the rage, and city leaders have paid lip service to the music scene for so long that their mouths stretch to the floor like characters in a Tex Avery cartoon. But all the while, the council has done very little to help Austin music and quite a lot to threaten its existence. Now, in a down economy, with the live music clubs already hurting, this ban is being pushed.
This is not the time to experiment with social engineering, with possibly devastating effects to the very businesses politicians claim to most celebrate. If there is even a temporary drop in business, it could close marginal bars and restaurants that are just barely surviving. It is not worth the risk, especially right now.
If the smoking ban passes, whenever a business folds as a consequence I will run a box in the Chronicle noting this. Say Bucket of Blues, a live music venue, closes. The notice will say "Council members [naming the yes votes] voted to close Bucket of Blues, an Austin live music venue. Why?" If any of the affirming votes run in any future election, I will print the same with a list of closed venues.
The impact of the smoking ban is open to debate. Advocates say it doesn't negatively impact on businesses, and even if it does, not for very long. Opponents argue that it does, that businesses close, and that there are long-term consequences. Last issue, I quoted an Arizona paper on the negative impact of Tempe's ban. Ken Pfluger, chair of Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition, faxed me a letter from Tempe's mayor to Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, asserting the ban hasn't been harmful. Ken noted, "You may lay the blame for the Tempe closures on their ordinance but apparently the mayor of Tempe doesn't. I trust he knows more about the situation than you do."
"Per the request of Ken Pfluger, Chair of Tobacco-Free Austin, I wanted to give you a progress report on Tempe's newly enacted smoking ordinance," the letter opens.
"As you are probably aware, Tempe's smoking ordinance is the result of a voter-driven initiative that was passed in May 2002. Upon its initial implementation, a number of local bars experienced a drop in customers. I believe, however, that this was due to a combination of coinciding circumstances including the beginning of summer vacation at Arizona State University and the general economic downturn."
Pfluger, who of course has a vested interest, is not privileging the observations of Tempe's mayor over mine, but over those of a journalist in Tempe reporting on local economic news. He takes on face value the assurance offered by one politician to another (which Pfluger himself had requested) that legislation enacted during his term hadn't harmed his city.
The Tempe no-smoking ordinance was instituted by voters at the ballot box. In Austin, it is being pushed by politicians, not the public. The ordinance (like others across the country, I bet even in Tempe) is driven by those dreaded special interests -- in this case, the very well-funded anti-tobacco crowd imposing their opinion on unwilling businesses.
In the Tempe mayor's letter, he does note that the local businesses that did complain of losses were mostly small bars that already hosted other code violations. Can you say "live music clubs"? Even if only a few clubs and restaurants close, is that really the message the City Council wants to send to small, Austin-owned businesses? "We support you, though if a few of you have to die to serve our vision, well, that's the way it is."
Many cite an eventual return to normal business levels, even where there's been an initial decline, and quote owners of still-opened establishments now supporting the ban. But even if the overall economic numbers are the same, they don't reflect the disparate impact of a smoking ban on locally owned vs. national-chain business or on larger vs. smaller establishments. The owners quoted in support of smoking restrictions are those whose businesses have not only survived the ban but have also seen some of their competition wiped out.
The federal and state government are about to undertake massive layoffs that will have a disproportionately large impact on Austin. Substantial layoffs have a concentric economic effect. Lost jobs mean curbed spending, causing the loss of revenue at other establishments, causing more jobs to be cut, and so on and so on. The economy is already in lousy shape. How can the council in any conscience author a social experiment whose most likely victims are already-struggling businesses that fit the profile local politicians are simultaneously extolling as essential to this city's future?
A certain hysteria has emerged in the run-off election between Margot Clarke and Brewster McCracken for Place 5. This is really appalling. Either of these candidates would make a fine council member, though there are definite differences. But if this most reasoned and reasonable of contests, with relatively evenly matched candidates, is to be determined by polemical excesses and aggressive character assassination, then the democratic electoral system is in even worse trouble than already acknowledged. Over the years, I have seen many run-off elections where one candidate was ridiculously more qualified than the other. There have also been run-offs where one of the candidates would be unquestionably toxic if elected to the office to which he or she aspired. But in this run-off, neither is the case. Both candidates bring skills, supporters, a respectable track record, and, most importantly, ideas to the campaign.
As do the Chronicle's official endorsements, I support Margot Clarke. She is a long-established, outspoken voice in the community, with a large social vision and strong sense of community commitment. McCracken is also impressive. My hesitations with him are that I think he'll be more of a bloc vote with Will Wynn (which is exactly the reason the Statesman endorsed him). Although obviously very intelligent and well-versed in the issues, he is less seasoned than Clarke. Given Austin's always monsoon-intense politics, this is a disadvantage. This may not be the season for a council in too-perfect concert.
One of my all-time favorite film reviews noted that Cliff Robertson's John F. Kennedy in 1963's PT 109 strode the helm of that small boat as though completely aware that he was going to be president. My hardest-to-define discomfort with McCracken is the sense that he is running for council as the first chapter to a more storied political career to be enacted on a much larger stage.
All this said, I support Clarke and am enthusiastic about our endorsement of her. It is a credit to the best aspect of our city's politics that she faces an opponent as qualified as McCracken. If only this were always the case.
A Personal Note: To paraphrase the great Waylon Jennings and beat on a theme I already crippled last issue, "this partisanship thing has done got out of hand." In Ken Pfluger's e-mail to me, he also noted that some of the smoking ban's opponents were upset because a staff member of one of the supporting council members was rumored to be taking a job with a nonprofit associated with the anti-smoking movement. "If the opponents of the ordinance must lower the level of the debate to what is arguably a personal slur," Pfluger wrote, "then what's next? Even if the allegation were true I must admit some difficulty in sensing what's wrong with working [with this nonprofit]." Come on now. Post-political career options, especially in the wake of legislative actions, are always a legitimate issue. What if an aide of a council member opposed to the ban was poised to go to work for a tobacco company or one of the businesses leading the opposition? Would noting this be "a personal slur"? In either case, I would hope the Chronicle would report on the situation not as a "slur," but as news.