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Friendly Sons, Fight for Children get D.C. smoking ban exemption for 2010 events

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For decades, Washington power brokers have gathered on Saint Patrick's Day to toast, and in some cases invent their Irishness with Guinness, Kelly green cummerbunds and cigar smoke.

Last year, they survived without the smoke. But not everyone was happy, to the point that one legislator has pushed an emergency bill in the D.C. Council to let the stogies burn next week, and tried to make a permanent exception to the city's smoke-free laws.

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has asked his council colleagues to keep tradition alive for the all-male Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and another organization, Fight for Children, which hosts an annual smoke-filled professional boxing fundraiser.

Evans, who is a member of the Irish organization, said the measure was narrowly crafted, making an exception for only two nights a year and protecting workers by allowing venue employees to opt out of working the events.

But the bill has proponents of the District's 2006 workplace smoking ban in a huff.

Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, urged Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in a letter Monday to veto the legislation that she said would force workers to choose between their health and a paycheck; open the door for other organizations to request exemptions; and send a message that "it's okay to break the law if you're on the council or a buddy of a council member."

Evans, who has attended the annual dinner for at least the past 10 years but does not light up, said his bill is "perfectly appropriate for both organizations."

Despite opposition from the smoke-free camp, he succeeded last week in passing a one-year waiver on a 10 to 3 vote. The bill initially failed to get the necessary nine votes, but Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) switched positions on a second try.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D), who has joined the Friendly Sons celebration in the past, opposed the measure for policy and personal reasons. "If you make this exception, why not the next one? Once you make the decision, I think you need to be steadfast," said Gray, whose wife died of lung cancer in 1998, though she was not a smoker.

A spokesperson for Fenty said he had not yet received the bill.

A hearing on Evans's subsequent bill to make a permanent exception for the Friendly Sons was canceled on Monday. An aide to Health Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) said the council member thought it was best to first review results from the one-year waiver before deciding whether to move ahead with a comprehensive measure.

Unless Fenty intervenes, the cigars will burn this year. At Fight Night, the fundraiser for low-income children, the stogies contribute to an old-fashioned aura at the Hilton Washington. Along with a steak dinner and silent auction, there are cigar girls and gift bags with a cigar and cutter.

Jeff Travers, a spokesperson for the event that raised $2.3 million last year, said he was surprised and grateful to learn of Evans's effort last week. The organization, he said, had not been pressing the council for an exemption.

"Smoking is part of the history and part of the style of Fight Night, but we're sure that Fight Night would be successful without cigar smoking," he said.

The Saint Patrick's Day event hosted by the Friendly Sons is a 640-person dinner at the Capital Hilton that has included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and President Obama's national security adviser James L. Jones. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has attended and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has served as keynote speaker. The dinner, now in its 82nd year, includes a report from the Irish Embassy, Irish jokes, a "Danny Boy" solo from former congressman Jim Symington -- and cigars.

"The cigars are basically a throwback to the testosterone days," said past president Bill Edwards, a retired area vice president for Hilton Hotels. "It's a high-level but down-to-earth celebration of Irish heritage."

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