Capitol Report, Wayne Greene: Fallin takes smoking issue personally
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2013
2/24/13 at 4:36 AM
It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if it happens inside the walls of the state Capitol, it's political.
Politics is part of every decision made there and a very big part of most of them.
That's as true of Gov. Mary Fallin's position on smoking regulation as anything else.
In her State of the State speech this year, Fallin backed a proposal to allow cities to pass more restrictive smoking regulations than are contained in state law.
State law generally bans smoking in indoor public spaces, but there are lots of exceptions, including outs for bingo parlors, bars and separately ventilated smoking rooms in restaurants.
Eliminating the so-called state "pre-emption" law would allow cities to set their own standards.
They could ban the smoking rooms, ban smoking in public parks or simply ban all smoking in public spaces.
Fallin's bill never got out of the chute.
A Senate committee voted 6-2 to shelve the idea Monday, killing it legislatively until 2015.
The next day, Fallin - surrounded by doctors and mayors - held a press conference to announce plans for an initiative petition. The exact aim of that petition wasn't clear and still isn't, but it'll have something to do with restricting smoking.
That might be an initiative to remove the pre-emption law or a straight-out state ban on smoking in public places, Fallin said.
The political angles of the governor's stance seem obvious.
First, Fallin said polling shows the vast majority of Oklahomans want local government control on smoking regulation, and every politician wants to be on the side of the vast majority.
Second, it allows Fallin to reposition herself psychologically on a health policy issue.
So far, she's always been in a negative position - opposing Medicaid expansion, opposing a state health-care exchange, opposing "Obamacare" in general.
The initiative allows her to promote an idea, and one that has her on the side of the guys in the white lab coats.
Third, it allows Fallin to take a stand against the biggest bogeyman in American politics - Big Tobacco.
Finally, an initiative petition would help shape the electorate that shows up to vote in 2014 - the year Fallin would be running for re-election and the next Legislature is chosen.
There's a complex calculus involved in that one, and it would be easy to get balled up considering Fallin's potential motives, but there's little doubt there's something at work there.
Yet, with all of that acknowledged, it would be hard to walk away from Fallin's Tuesday press conference and not recognize that this isn't exclusively a political issue to her.
There's an authentic, internal point in play here, too - quite frankly, one that may overshadow the politics of the situation.
"It's a personal issue for me," Fallin said during her press conference. "It's about helping our Oklahomans have healthy lives. It's about being a better state."
Fallin described how her father died of smoking-related disease - a heart attack - when he was 57.
He didn't live to see Fallin get married or run for public office.
She also described her mother's long, slow physical decline, also associated with a life of smoking.
Fallin's mother, Mary Jo Copeland, died at 73 of heart disease complicated by strokes and other troubles.
"If she were alive today, I think she would tell all of us there were things she would do different with her life," Fallin said.
The last five years of her mother's life - a period of diapers and feeding tubes - Fallin acted as her caregiver.
When Fallin brings the deaths of her parents into the discussion, she does so with nuance. It doesn't sound political or manipulative or mawkish. It sounds like a woman speaking from the heart about her personal losses, and what she can do as a public figure to prevent others from feeling that same pain.
Smoking is the state's No. 1 cause of premature death. Some 6,000 Oklahomans die every year of smoking-related illnesses, including 700 deaths caused by secondhand smoke. When Fallin recites those numbers, it is with a voice informed by personal tragedy at least as much as political possibilities.
That's why she banned smoking on state property last year, why she was pulling strings - unsuccessfully - to get the pre-emption bill out of committee last week, and why she's willing to take the fight to the people now.
"Reducing smoking in our state is too important to stop yesterday," Fallin said Tuesday afternoon.
"These are unnecessary deaths," she said. "And they are heartbreaking."
Original Print Headline: Fallin's smoking stand is personal
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308