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Smoking ban heats up race for Minneapolis mayor
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Sue Jeffers owns Stub and Herbs. She is working to repeal the smoking bans in both Hennepin County and Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The Hennepin County smoking ban is becoming a big issue in the race for Minneapolis mayor. Bar and restaurant owners who feel the ban is hurting their business have helped convince Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin to reconsider his support for the ban. McLaughlin is running against Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak says campaign contributions from the bar owners appear to have helped change McLaughlin's mind.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Hennepin County smoking ban has been controversial since it was first enacted in April. It prohibits smoking in all bars and restaurants in the county. Supporters say the ban protects public health. Bar and restaurant owners say it stifles individual freedom and is hurting their business. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin supported the ban when it first passed but reopened the issue last month when he voted to study the ban's economic impact.

"We have heard about people being laid off," McLaughlin said. "We have heard about businesses losing lots of money and that charitable gambling is down significantly. I take that as an indication as a drop in business volume."

McLaughlin wouldn't say what it would take for him to reverse his position in favor of the smoking ban. At this point he says he's trying to balance the public health of restaurant workers with the financial health of local bars and restaurants.

"It's irresponsible not to look at it because it's people's lives, McLaughlin said. "If someone wants to call themselves a Democrat and not care about people getting laid off, I think they're a phony."

"We need to get him to change his vote..."
- Sue Jeffers, owner of Stub and Herbs

McLaughlin says his vote to study the ban has nothing to do with his campaign for mayor. He's considered the swing vote on the issue and many opponents of the ban, like Sue Jeffers, are pressuring him.

"We need to get him to change his vote," Jeffers said.

Jeffers owns the bar Stub and Herbs, near the University of Minnesota campus. She and several other bar owners are backing McLaughlin in his run for mayor against fellow DFLer R.T. Rybak. Jeffers says McLaughlin is more receptive to their desire to change the smoking bans in both the city and county.

"If he's willing to at least look at our numbers to show that he cares about the small businesses in our county and the significant losses that we're experiencing," Jeffers said, "we think he'll do the same on the city level as well. Whereas R.T. Rybak is the only person in the city of Minneapolis who thinks the smoking ban is good for business," she said.

Jeffers was one of several bar owners who attended a McLaughlin fundraiser that was held right after he voted to study the effects of the smoking ban. Rybak questioned both the timing of the fundraiser and the vote.

"I think it's a little harsh to take a vote that changes the position you've had and step out to a fundraiser that day."
- Mayor R.T. Rybak

"I think it's a little harsh to take a vote that changes the position you've had and step out to a fundraiser that day, Rybak said. "It's a little problematic."

In fact, in a printed press release Rybak went farther. He accused McLaughlin of selling his vote for campaign dollars.

Rybak opposes any changes to the county or city smoking bans, especially since the laws are less than a year old. He recognizes that some small business owners may struggle at first but is hopeful bar traffic will increase. Rybak also wants the state to be more aggressive on the issue.

"This the wave of the future, Rybak said. "I believe that there will be smoking bans all over the country. It's not a question of if Minneapolis or Minnesota has a smoking ban, it's when and how. We already have one. Let's make it work, and let's make it work statewide by leveling the playing field."

Bob Moffit supports the smoking ban. He's a spokesman for the American Lung Association. He says he's optimistic that McLaughlin will not vote to scale back the law. Moffit says bar owners who oppose the ban have stepped up their efforts to repeal it because bans elsewhere have become more difficult to reverse over time.

"They know if they wait 12 months, they have very little chance of overturning this," Moffit said. "Because all of the studies show the economic harm is not all that great and people just like it."

Hennepin County officials say they hope to release their study of the smoking ban in September. McLaughlin says he intends to study all of the data before he decides if he should vote to scale back the ban or leave it in place. Supporters and opponents of the ban will be watching his vote closely. It's likely that some of his support for mayor will go up in smoke no matter what action McLaughlin takes.

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