Smoking Ban Provides Drama for Ark. Politics

April 11, 2006

Education was the main reason that lawmakers returned to Little Rock, Ark., last week, but a statewide smoking ban provided the most drama.

Gov. Mike Huckabee’s proposal to ban smoking in most workplaces – signed into law April 7 – was clearly at the top of the list for a health-conscious governor with presidential ambitions.

When he announced a special session to legislators less than two weeks ago, Huckabee spent most of the phone call lobbying for the smoking proposal, defending the measure against several skeptical lawmakers.

“A week ago, nobody was predicting a 30-4 vote in the Senate,” Huckabee said after signing the ban into law on Friday. “To be honest with you, neither was I.”

Though it passed easily in the Senate, the proposed ban led to some wrangling in the House, with one representative tacking on an amendment to exempt small hotels from the ban and another proposing to exempt police cars from the proposal.

Huckabee said he was afraid the measures were an attempt to kill the proposal by adding countless amendments. One legislator had even introduced a measure, in protest, to ban the sale, transport and manufacture of tobacco in the state.

Though that proposal never moved out of committee, Huckabee said it would have been “poetic justice” if lawmakers had enacted that ban.

“It wouldn’t have affected my lifestyle one iota,” Huckabee said. “I frankly wish the House and the Senate would have passed it as sort of a way to say, ‘OK, that’s what you want, let’s do it.”’

The amendments and wrangling led to questions over the governor’s support for the proposal. After representatives openly speculated on the House floor that Huckabee’s support for the proposal had waned, the governor said he sent a “frantic” e-mail to lawmakers saying he still supported the measure.

The ban ultimately won out, with an exemption for smaller hotels and motels, and now Huckabee has a new entry to add to his resume on health issues, and possibly a platform for a 2008 presidential bid.

Huckabee has made no secret of the fact that he is eyeing a run for the White House. The term-limited Republican leaves office in January 2007 and has said he is considering a presidential campaign.

Making frequent stops in New Hampshire and Iowa, Huckabee has often touted his health policies while at the traditional campaign stops. He often shares his own story of losing more than 100 pounds and becoming an avid runner after being diagnosed with diabetes.

He boasts of Arkansas’ walking breaks instead of smoking breaks for state employees and has been able to point to his successful ballot initiative to route Arkansas’ money from the states’ settlement with tobacco companies into health-related projects.

Could a smoking ban be the final plank in his health platform?

Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College, said the smoking ban is an issue that could play well in a general election but might not help Huckabee much in a GOP primary.

“In the general election, it’s an issue that would play incredibly well with women and with other voters in general election politics,” Barth said. “I don’t know that it has the same traction in a Republican primary.”

The smoking ban is an issue, Huckabee said, that crosses party lines. Huckabee said he thinks the idea of saving insurance costs by cutting down on second-hand smoke still fits in with his own conservative ideas.

“Frankly, this is an issue where it’s hard to find the ideology,” Huckabee said. “You had liberals and conservatives behind this.”

Sen. Gilbert Baker, the chairman of the state GOP, said he doesn’t know if it’s an issue that would ultimately help Huckabee if he ran for president.

“A lot of folks have tried to tie presidential politics to this, and I don’t think that’s what this is about,” said Baker, who is from Conway. “I think he did this because he thought it was a good idea.”

The governor said his motivation wasn’t ultimately political in pushing for the smoking ban, which he called for late last year.

“Really, it’s one of those things where I could tell you I don’t know and I don’t care,” Huckabee said. “I didn’t do it because it was good politics. I did it because it was good policy.”

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