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Big Tent Politics

June 08, 2005

Back in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Republican foes claimed long and loudly that the federal government had spent millions to dispatch a destroyer to the Aleutian Islands to bring home Fala, the Roosevelts' left-behind Scottish terrier. Roosevelt protested: "I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my little dog."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to love his cigars about as much as Roosevelt did Fala. One of his first acts as governor was to erect a smoking tent in the atrium patio outside his office, a location that became famous for deal-making in the first heady months of his governorship.

Whether it was the cigars or the governor's good mood, the tactic produced action on big state problems like reforming workers' compensation.

Now, with bipartisanship reduced to ashes and Democratic leaders absent from the patio, Assembly Democrats are seeking revenge on the tent.

In a flurry of lawmaking to meet a deadline for getting bills moved to the Senate, the Assembly passed AB 616 by Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) that bans smoking in an outdoor area "enclosed on at least four sides by a state public building or buildings," which would certainly include the patio off the governor's office.

In last week's debate, Democrats portrayed the bill as a health issue and a matter of setting a good example for young people visiting the Capitol. Republicans called it "despicable." Just silly, perhaps, because Schwarzenegger could veto the measure even if it were to pass the Senate, and the Assembly vote, 41-32, certainly wasn't enough to override.

The real problem is that the more the Democrats pull such pranks, and the more Schwarzenegger belittles and demonizes his opponents in television ads and cozy calls with big contributors, the less likely it is that the two sides will ever puff again in that tent on stogies whose wrappers bear the governor's name.

Yes, smoking is awful. And it seems that the smoke does seep into some legislators' offices, which is at best impolite. But, bottom line, we'd much rather see the governor and legislators ruining their health over fancy cigars than ruining effective government with a Fala-scale battle.

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