By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
RICHMOND, March 9 -- As Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was signing into law a bill that prohibits smoking in many of the state's restaurants and bars, Democrats were already turning the issue into fodder for a political attack on Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell and his ties to big tobacco.
Democrats accused McDonnell of fighting the restaurant smoking ban at the behest of Altria Group, the world's largest cigarette manufacturer.
McDonnell was Virginia's top recipient of campaign contributions and gifts in 2008 from Richmond-based Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA. He received $35,000 in donations and $6,532 in gifts, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
"All three Democratic candidates for governor stood with Virginians in support of this common-sense legislation,'' said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. "But Bob McDonnell chose special interests over the health of Virginians."
Starting Dec. 1, smoking will be banned in many of the state's bars and restaurants, though it will be permitted in private clubs, on some outdoor patios and in separate ventilated rooms.
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell, said the Republican supports the idea of smoke-free restaurants but believes the decision should be left to individual business owners, not imposed by the state.
"In this tough economic climate, it is disappointing to watch Democrats attempt to demonize one of the biggest employers in Virginia,'' Martin said. "It is really unfortunate to watch the Democratic Party, bankrolled to a record degree by big union money, come out attacking a major Virginia employer and threatening jobs."
Altria, which recently moved its headquarters to the Richmond area, employs 5,000 workers across the state.
The fact that Democrats have seized on tobacco as an issue for the 2009 campaign signals just how much they believe the state has changed. For years, lawmakers rejected the notion of a restaurant smoking ban, but Kaine (D) said he saw evidence in polls that attitudes about smoking had changed, even in a state that built its economy on the tobacco industry.
Tobacco companies remain a powerful presence in Virginia, however. All three Democratic candidates for governor received campaign contributions from Altria. State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath received $15,000, and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and former delegate Brian Moran of Alexandria each received $10,000.
Altria spokesman Bill Phelps declined to comment on the donations.
In addition to donating to McDonnell's campaign, Altria paid $6,532 to cover the cost of his travel to a meeting of the Republican Attorneys General Association.
On Monday afternoon, Kaine joined state legislators, health advocates and business owners in Virginia Beach to sign the smoking bill.
"I am extremely proud to have been a part of the coalition that made this day a reality, and I am thrilled to place my signature on this monumental step forward for public health in Virginia,'' Kaine said.
Twenty-three other states and the District have enacted prohibitions. Virginia will become the first state in the South to ban smoking in restaurants and bars.
Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) spent weeks behind closed doors negotiating the unexpected compromise. The deal represented a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation between the state's two most powerful leaders.
"Knowing that workers in restaurants that allow smoking are twice as likely to develop lung cancer, this new law is a real victory for public health," said Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), who introduced the governor's original smoking ban bill this year.
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.