- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

The backlash that threatened to pit Virginia Republican activists against the party lawmakers who voted for a statewide smoking ban appears to be muted - for now.

“It doesn’t begin or end with the smoking ban,” said Ben Marchi, Virginia director of the grass-roots organization Americans for Prosperity. “The issues of concern to conservatives are whether our elected officials are going to stand up to this big-government juggernaut that’s coming at our state and our country right now.”

The General Assembly approved legislation Feb. 19 barring smoking in the state’s bars and restaurants, with exceptions included for establishments that set up separately ventilated smoking rooms and for private clubs.

The ban began as a compromise between Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican. But it elicited stiff opposition from state Republican activists, who said the bill was inconsistent with party principles.

“We urge you to allow the marketplace to influence private-sector activity, instead of relying upon heavy-handed, intrusive government regulation,” a score of party leaders - including Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick, who is also a Republican member of the House of Delegates from Prince William - wrote in a memo to party lawmakers.

The measure also sparked criticism of Mr. Howell for handing Mr. Kaine a signature legislative victory and backing the proposal, which is similar to those spiked in previous sessions in the House.

But since the bill’s passage with the backing of more than 20 House Republicans, activists say the storm has died down. Mike Wade, chairman of the 3rd Congressional District Republican Committee, said he still disagrees with the measure but that “I have bigger fish to fry in other arenas.”

While questions have been raised regarding Mr. Howell’s leadership - and the fate of Republican proponents of the measure - time will tell whether there will be a political price to pay.

“That’s something that will be decided in the coming weeks,” said Mr. Wade, who signed the letter to lawmakers.

All 100 members of the House are up for re-election in November, with control of the chamber and the state’s redistricting process at stake. Several Republicans faced stiff primary challenges for re-election as a result of supporting a $1.4 billion tax increase by Gov. Mark Warner, Mr. Kaine’s Democratic predecessor, in 2004.

“If there are primary challenges against incumbent delegates who voted for the smoking ban, I think it would strongly suggest there were other concerns before, and this would be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Gary Byler, chairman of the 2nd Congressional District Republican Committee.

Bob Holsworth, a political analyst who runs the Web site www.virginiatomorrow.com, said Mr. Howell likely backed the smoking ban to give Democrats less ammunition this fall regarding Republican opposition to the bill.

Republicans hold a 53-45 advantage in the House. When Mr. Howell took over as speaker in 2003, the party held a 64-34 majority in the chamber, which has two independents.

“If they don’t hold on [in November], he’s not the speaker any longer,” Mr. Holsworth said. “My sense is that everyone has decided that it’s not productive to have a huge internal fight for the moment when they’re going to be in the election of their life.”

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