It appeared to be the pinnacle of Catholic Robert W. Curran’s political career when eight of his colleagues on the City Council supported his bill Feb. 26 to declare the municipality a smoke-free zone.
Calling the 9-2 vote historic, the council vice president and parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi, Baltimore, told his supporters their vote would save thousands of lives and serve as an inspiration for the Maryland General Assembly to follow suit and create a statewide smoking ban.
When signed into law as promised by Mayor Sheila Dixon, the bill will prohibit smoking in all public places – including church bingo halls, bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs – effective Jan. 1, 2008.
Businesses will face a $500 fine for each violation and individual smokers could receive a $250 citation.
The Northwood resident’s two-year odyssey to get the smoking ban passed was a hard-fought battle that tested the emotions of opponents and proponents alike, especially among his fellow council members, who endured last-minute appeals for their votes in the days before the vote.
In a procedural hearing earlier in February, the measure only garnered six supporting votes – the minimum needed to move to the third and final vote; it didn’t look like the bill would get the eight yeas it needed to pass.
Lobby efforts from new Mayor Dixon, new council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, council Vice President Curran and mayoral candidate Councilman Keiffer Jackson Mitchell Jr. swung full throttle.
Councilwomen Helen Holton and Paula Johnson Branch both said overwhelming constituent support convinced them to change their previous abstention votes to yeas. New Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton – who was appointed to fill the vacant Sixth District seat just hours before the Feb. 26 meeting – cited the same reason for her support of the smoking ban.
Only councilmen Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Nicholas C. D’Adamo Jr. voted against the smoking ban.
Councilman James B. Kraft – whose district stretches from Highlandtown to Fells Point and has more bars than any other section of the city – changed his no vote to an abstention. Councilwomen Agnes Welch and Belinda Conaway also abstained. Councilman Edward Reisinger was absent.
“It’s been a contentious issue, but it’s the right thing to do, and I’m glad the city showed some leadership on this issue,” Councilman Mitchell said amid thunderous applause from the gallery. “Health trumps economics.”
Talbot, Prince George’s, Montgomery and Howard counties already have similar smoking bans.
“This bill does impose regrettable hardships, especially on bars and restaurants near the Baltimore County line,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, as she cast her vote of yea. “But if we don’t lead, will the state follow?”
A statewide smoking ban has failed in previous years to progress in the General Assembly, but some political observers speculate the legislature will be more agreeable now that Baltimore has passed a smoke-free measure – a move that would lessen the blow to city businesses near the Baltimore and Anne Arundel county borders.
“Bar and restaurant employees have a right to a healthy and safe work environment,” Mayor Dixon said in a prepared statement after the vote, “and restricting smoking will protect other restaurant patrons as well.”