Mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to advertise himself as a consensus-builder who prefers compromise to combat. But when it comes to his war against smoking, Mr. Bloomberg is about as flexible as an iron lung.
The Mayor is privately threatening to retaliate against City Council members who fail to support his current proposal to ban smoking in all New York City bars and restaurants, Council sources told The Observer .
In a recent closed-door discussion with City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Mr. Bloomberg said in stark terms that he would seek to undermine the future electoral prospects of Council members who don’t vote for the ban, according to members who have discussed the matter with the Speaker.
“He said, ‘I will support people’s opponents-anyone who’s not for this bill is killing people,’” one of the Council members said of Mr. Bloomberg.
In the war on smoking, Mr. Bloomberg has found his first moral crusade. Mr. Bloomberg has repeatedly railed against cigarettes, hiking cigarette taxes, buttonholing smokers outside City Hall to explain to them how to quit and frequently saying that tobacco kills innocent children. Mr. Bloomberg is uncompromising in his zeal to ban smoking: He is so bent on passing his current legislation with little to no alteration that he is abandoning his usual consensus-building approach in favor of the sort of power politics that were the hallmark of his predecessor.
“The Mayor gets crazy when he talks about this,” said one person who has discussed the bill with the Mayor. “He’s totally into this bill. He has total tunnel vision.”
Bill Cunningham, the Mayor’s director of communications, declined to comment on Mr. Bloomberg’s private intimations to Council members, but said: “The Mayor has had conversations with different members of the Council and told them that he’s willing to promote this, even at their expense. Some people may think this means he’ll support their opponents; others may think it means he’ll do an education campaign in their district. Whatever they heard, the point is always this: The Mayor is deadly serious about this issue.”
Mr. Cunningham added: “They should know that it’s not personal-it’s business.”
Chris Policano, a spokesman for Mr. Miller, declined to comment on the private discussions and dismissed Mr. Cunningham’s comments.
“Bill Cunningham’s Sonny Corleone routine is wearing a bit thin,” Mr. Policano said. “He may want to consider a self-imposed ban on Godfather movies. The Speaker thinks the smoking bill is a very serious matter, and politics has no place in the discussion. It deserves thoughtful deliberation, and that’s what it’s going to get.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s behind-the-scenes pressure campaign comes as opponents of the ban are gaining ground with some new hard-edged tactics of their own. The foes of the measure-including high-profile bar and club owners and lobbyists for Philip Morris U.S.A.-have hit on a new and effective approach: They’re telling Council members and neighborhood groups that the ban will cause a major quality-of-life problem throughout the five boroughs, because smokers will congregate outside bars in residential areas until all hours of the morning.
“You’re going to have dozens of people in the streets, smoking, dropping their cigarette butts and talking loudly until 4 o’clock in the morning,” said David Rabin, a co-owner of Lotus and Union Bar. “It’s going to turn the streets into a social scene and cause a huge war between businesses and community groups.”
Mr. Rabin stressed that he only opposed the portion of the bill that would nix smoking in bars and clubs. “I’m a fervent anti-smoker,” he said. “If I see an article about cancer in the paper, I’ll post it to encourage people not to smoke. My college thesis was about secondhand smoke. But when communities wake up to the reality of this bill, they are going to freak out.”
Even supporters of the ban concede that this new argument may have a real impact on the debate. They are particularly concerned that it will prove to be a potent public-relations strategy, because it goes beyond economic sob stories about the plight of bar owners and raises broad-based quality-of-life fears.
“We need to respond to these quality-of-life concerns,” said City Council member Christine Quinn, who chairs the Council’s health committee and supports the bill.
“This is a very powerful argument, and it will carry real weight in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side,” added City Council member Eric Gioia of Queens. “The idea of people congregating on street corners to catch a smoke is not a reassuring picture for people who are trying to get a good night’s sleep.”
Lobbyists for Philip Morris have been making this case, among others, to City Council members, and lobbyists for nightclubs are planning to make the argument to the community boards in neighborhoods that are already dealing with noisy bars and clubs. The legislation is currently before the City Council, which must approve it for it to become law.
Mr. Cunningham seemed amused that nightclub owners were suddenly expressing concern about their neighbors’ peace of mind. “It’s a scare tactic,” he said. “They shouldn’t be encouraging illegal and rowdy behavior. It’s a form of blackmail.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s crackdown on cigarettes has grown in intensity since he took office. He began by hiking taxes on cigarettes from eight cents to $1.50 per pack, provoking protests from bodega owners who argued that smokers would stop coming to their stores and buy smokes from smugglers instead.
But Mr. Bloomberg was only getting started. The depth of his resolve became apparent last month, when he announced that he wanted to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants, making New York’s anti-smoking laws among the toughest in the nation.
In response, tavern keepers throughout the city began organizing, arguing that such a ban would wipe out hundreds of family businesses. Their viewpoint soon began filling the pages of the city’s newspapers.
Philip Morris has also played a key role in combating the bill. Their lobbyists have already been working on City Council members, and the company is now considering further steps. According to Brendan McCormick, a Philip Morris spokesman, the company is exploring new ways of helping the grassroots groups that have organized against the proposal.
“We have been approached by a variety of organizations that have asked us to provide financial support for their efforts,” Mr. McCormick said. “Right now, we have a couple of different things we’re considering.”
Any involvement by Philip Morris, however, creates a dilemma for the tavern keepers. They want the fight to be cast as one of small business against intrusive government; having the tobacco giant involved muddles that story line.
Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign shows no signs of abating. “We fully expect that this thing is going to move forward,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If it gets derailed-whether it’s by some shadow group set up to fight this legislation, or by some political operatives-the Mayor will take that into account and respond accordingly.”