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Of stogies and state

The governor makes his pitches in a smoking tent as some pitch a fit.

September 19, 2004|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Sacramento — There he is, Juan Vargas, the state assemblyman known for his antitobacco leanings, in the state that prides itself as having the strictest smoking policies in the country -- there he is, watching from his Capitol building office as newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger puts flame to stogie in the courtyard two stories below.

In the weeks following, Vargas watches as Schwarzenegger's people cover the cement with artificial grass and erect a large tent -- then strike that one and assemble the 12-by-16-foot cabana-style tent that remains standing today.

Word travels up through the six floors of legislative offices that surround the courtyard on all sides: "It's a smoking tent," an aide tells another aide. "A meeting tent," says an assemblyman. "A deal-making tent," says a senator.

"I hate tobacco," Vargas says. "I think it's a terrible thing." But Vargas doesn't mind the smoking tent, which has become the governor's de facto office. The only time Vargas noticed Schwarzenegger breaking the law -- a law that Vargas sponsored: no smoking within 20 feet of a public building's windows or doors -- "was when I lured him," he says.

A group of children visiting Vargas asked to see Schwarzenegger. Vargas glanced toward the courtyard, noticed a muscled silhouette and suggested the children "bang on the window."

After a minute of enthusiastic pounding, "I saw the big arm come out and literally swat his aide out of the way," Vargas says. Schwarzenegger emerged, cigar in teeth, to give the thumbs-up and pose for pictures.

"He didn't put his cigar down, but that's fine," Vargas says. "It was a very nice thing for him to do."

The governor's new office

CIGARS have long been part of Schwarzenegger's public persona -- father-in-law Sargent Shriver introduced him to cigars, and he has twice graced the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. The smoking tent is no surprise to those who know him. It's "typical of his creativity" to construct a business environment where he can "smoke a cigar, schmooze and drink coffee," says longtime friend and personal financial advisor Paul Watcher. Schwarzenegger came up with the idea on his first day in office, Watcher says, and he paid for it himself.

The location of the courtyard allows Schwarzenegger to control access: A California Highway Patrol officer guards the entrance to the governor's outer office, and another officer flanks the door leading to a conference room, which leads outside to the tent. "I don't know about security at the White House," says one CHP officer, "but this is pretty close." The setup means that while anybody can peer down from above, only the select have the chance to gaze up from below.

On a recent Thursday morning, a reporter sits in the governor's outer office for nearly two hours, waiting to spend less than five minutes in the tent. The office is filled with chatter and movement -- Sierra Club activists lobbying to protect Hearst Ranch; business interests lobbying for this or that legislation; kids who ask to see Schwarzenegger but get his business card instead. Kristen Garner, the receptionist who worked under Gov. Gray Davis as well, says there has been "much more traffic" since Schwarzenegger moved in. When she leaves to use the restroom the crowd swells and the line to her desk winds around the room.

Then Terri Carbaugh, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman, arrives and whisks the reporter into the inner sanctum. First Lady Maria Shriver has lined the conference room with paintings of the California countryside in spring, but there's no time to dawdle. Carbaugh raises a screen, unlocks another door and ushers the reporter outside. The tent is fashioned of brown -- one might say cigar brown -- Sunbrella fabric, and it luxuriates in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by plants and metal picnic tables and chairs.

One side of the tent is open; another is partly open and draped with mosquito netting. Inside, the faux-grass floor is covered with a woven mat, and a small but powerful fan creates a pleasant breeze, keeping the tent remarkably cool. Six brown rattan swivel chairs surround a large glass table on which sits a crystal ashtray emblazoned with the Cuban cigar label Montecristo. Two cigar stubs lie in the ashtray. Somebody has left a silver hand-exerciser on the brown humidor nearby. There is a pile of magazines on a table at the opposite side of the tent, topped by an issue of Muscle & Fitness featuring: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Time is up. On the way out, Carbaugh tells the reporter, "It's really no big deal. Just a tent."

A Hollywood precedent

"ONE can safely say," says State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr, "that never before in the history of California has its governor conducted significant business in a smoking tent."

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