The best and brightest of the Summit County Democratic Party are packed into the bar like marinated sardines, wholly unaware of the empty chairs in the adjacent nonsmoking room. It's election night at Crave, a downtown Akron restaurant, and it's one hell of a celebration.
There may be music playing, but you can't hear it over the din of victory and calls for another round of Bud. A small P.A. reports a sweep of Democratic wins -- all three at-large city council seats, plus three out of four spots on the Akron Municipal Court.
At each announcement, County Executive James McCarthy sets down his Bud Light, fixes his Winston between his lips, and offers up the healthy applause of a true Irishman, toasting with a sip of Jack and short bursts of a sloppy Sinatra two-step.
As McCarthy . . . Wait. Let's rewind . . . He "fixes his Winston between his lips?" Isn't this the guy who wants to ban smoking in Summit County?
Just three weeks earlier, the county council introduced a resolution -- endorsed by none other than the boss himself -- that would ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Even those caught within 10 feet of an entrance could face a $150 fine.
It's the sort of measure that has those concerned about such trivial matters as health and clean air praising the county's otherwise Old World leaders. But it's also the kind of law that has Northeast Ohio's vast bar-dweller nation -- McCarthy's people -- wondering what happened to their leader, a straight-shooting Winston vet since 1955.
He responds with a touch of resignation, like an old man conceding to changed times. "I'm not even allowed to smoke in my own house," he says, pointing to his wife, Rose, who's working on a burger twice her size.
Still, it's one thing to bow to the superior firepower of one's wife. It's another to bend to the wishes of the county council -- especially when you're supposed to be the omnipotent boss. McCarthy, after all, is a man well acquainted with the miracle of the bar, the sanctuary of working people, where laws are made through unstated custom, rather than unsavory suits intruding from the outside world.
So as he searches for a lighter, the last thing he wants to discuss is the smoking ban. Instead, he cryptically jokes that the ban is much ado about nothing. Despite a week of front-page stories in the Beacon Journal, he hints that it will affect only the townships, not Akron proper -- a city known for its fondness for tobacco products.
"What are you getting so upset about?" McCarthy asks. "Have you ever been to a bar in Boston Township? Have you ever been to a bar in Twinsburg Township?"
Do they even have bars in the townships?
"There are more important things to think about than this ban, especially in Akron."
As McCarthy pushes the conversation toward more comfortable issues -- namely fiscal responsibility and his quest for another Bud Light -- County Councilman Clair Dickinson stands in a corner, clutching his sleek pint glass. With a starched blazer and Booji Boy grin, he embodies those who usually push such bans: men who rarely embrace these environs of barley and smoke, but seek to legislate them anyway.
"Really, it's a worker's safety issue," Dickinson says with shaky confidence, his sober gaze widening beneath professorial lenses. "Why should these bartenders have to breathe in your smoke?"
Bartender Alex Hamilton won't back him up. "I'm a smoker, so I don't really mind," he says as he double-fists two ashtrays headed for the garbage.
Like most people, he doesn't mind a ban at restaurants, where children and grandmas convene. But as a patriot of liberty, he must defend the sanctuary. "I think they should leave the bars alone."
He replaces the ashtray in front of Hannie Muri, who sips on coffee after a long day of canvassing for Judge-elect Kathryn Michael. "Smoking's not illegal," Muri says between puffs. "Until it is, get carry-out and go home if you don't like it."
Muri, a single mom and political science student by day, bartender by night, understands the proposition at hand. "I don't smoke in front of my daughter," she says. "But I don't take my daughter to bars either. If this ban is passed, I'm gonna lose all my loyal customers."
On a large TV screen behind Muri, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell is conceding her race just as Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic makes his rounds at Crave. Muri stops Plusquellic to ask him about the ban.
"We're looking at different options, different ways to compromise," Plusquellic says. Translated into English: He doesn't want to talk about it.
As the bar empties out, Plusquellic pulls up a chair next to McCarthy and orders one last glass of red wine. McCarthy slides the nonsmoking Plusquellic a cigarette. "Scene wants to do a story on the smoking ban," he says.
Plusquellic laughs, lights the cigarette, and takes a few cautious puffs to make his point. He can't come out and say he's against the ban. A nonsmoker and a smart politician, he's probably all for eradicating a leading cause of cancer. But he's not interested in issues like smoking when he has more important things to worry about, like reviving Akron from the post-industrial blight that's conquered most Ohio cities. Killing business is not in his nature.
After two drags, he puts the cigarette out.
For as much hoopla as the ban has raised, McCarthy and Plusquellic share an indifference to the issue that suggests they know something the rest of us don't. It's as though McCarthy sponsored the ban knowing that Akron would be excluded.
A few days after election night, this thesis comes true: City Law Director Max Rothal announces that the ban will have no effect on Akron.
So for now, McCarthy and Plusquellic will conduct the people's business as they've always done -- over drinks and smokes.
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