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Monday, March 24, 2008

Recap of smokers rights rally in Iowa

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COBRA hosts Rights Rally

By Danica Baker
Herald Staff Writer

— CLINTON — Dozens of concerned citizens, area food and beverage service business owners and employees gathered in Riverview Park on Saturday afternoon to talk about freedoms and rights.

The Clinton Organized Bar and Restaurant Association hosted the Rights Rally to give area citizens a chance to comment against the proposed statewide smoking ban and any other topic relating to citizen rights. Approximately 200 people attended the event at the Riverview Bandshell from 2 to 4 p.m. and many took the stage to speak their minds.
COBRA President Jon Van Roekel welcomed the crowd to the event and said the rally was being held to talk about citizens' rights and “how they're being infringed on.” He encouraged everyone in attendance to remember the event was a peaceful rally. Before the speeches began, the national anthem was sung by COBRA Membership Director and Grafitti Manager April Diss.

Mayor Rodger Holm took the stage first and Van Roekel commented that Holm always has been a big supporter of COBRA, both as a council person and as mayor. Holm said the rally exemplified why America is so great because people can come together and discuss important issues in an effort to enact change. He applauded Van Roekel for his initiative in organizing COBRA and remarked the organization has done a lot for Clinton businesses. Holm said that while his remarks were not an official response from the city in any way, personally he was impressed for the organization's commitment to getting involved in the political process. He congratulated all in attendance for peaceably assembling to speak up for what they believe in.

Steve Gendreau, owner of Illowa Music and Games and Mr. G’s Pizza, said he is concerned about the economic impact of a smoking ban. He said that the ban would not only affect business owners, but spread to impact all Iowa citizens. Gendreau said he does business in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin and has seen firsthand how the smoking ban has affected businesses in Illinois. He said three Illinois bar owners have contacted him and reported they will be closing their doors due to decreased revenue and he commented it would be a reality that some establishments in Iowa would close if the ban is enacted.

Gendreau said he has spoken with many people regarding the proposed smoking ban and said numerous people are “tired of government interfering on their lives, imposing restrictions on what you can and what you can't do.” He said he is impressed with what COBRA has done and said the audience should be proud of themselves for standing up for their rights.

Before introducing the next speaker, Van Roekel said that COBRA “may be small but we are mighty." He said the organization’s members employ 1,250 employees, have $6.8 million in annual revenues and pay $2.1 million in local taxes annually. He remarked that local legislators have stated the state cannot afford to lose the revenue of the casinos which could be affected by the smoking ban, but Van Roekel said "$2.1 million in taxes is a lot too.” He noted that member establishments pay dues of $50 per year and food and beverage service employees pay only $5 to join the organization.

“It's a small price to pay to make sure your rights are guaranteed,” said Van Roekel.

He encouraged anyone in the audience who was not registered to vote to visit a voter registration table and reminded the crowd that they have the right to vote someone out of office if they do not like how that legislator is representing them. Van Roekel also noted that a computer had been set up for those in attendance to write their legislators an e-mail and let those representatives know what is important to them.

Brian Dalton, co-owner of Patrick’s Steakhouse, said his main concern is the loss of personal choice and legislators making those choices for the public. Dalton remarked that cigarettes are a legal substance and how legal substances are used should be the discretion of the individual. He encouraged the audience to write their legislators, saying it only takes five minutes and “they need to know where we stand.”

COBRA Vice President Gordon Carroll, owner of Club 110 and The Odeon, said State Rep. Polly Bukta reportedly stated that when one smoking bar closes, another non-smoking bar would open in its place. Carroll said he knows the smoking ban would greatly impact food and beverage service establishments in the state, as evidenced by the closing of several Illinois bars and a plummet in casino revenues.

“I want the right to choose if my bar is smoking or not,” Carroll said. “We really don’t need the legislature making the choice for us.”

He said Bukta has indicated her support for the smoking ban, saying that although her decision is contrary to the wishes of many of her constituents, there is a simple way to take care of the matter — voting Bukta out of office.

“Let’s show Polly the door, another will surely open for her,” he said.

Two COBRA members spoke about how the proposed ban and expected loss of revenue would affect them personally. Diss said that while her husband works, their large household including five children depends on two incomes. She said the ban could reduce her employer’s revenues so much, she could lose her job. Diss applauded COBRA for taking an active role in government and thanked those in attendance for supporting citizens’ rights.

Ashley Bousman, a bartender at Grafitti, said that she is concerned about losing customers and tips if the smoking ban is enacted. She noted the money she makes comes home to her children and Bousman expressed a concern about having to find a different job. She said most of her regular customers have indicated they will stay home “where they can smoke and have rights.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do if this will pass,” she said.

Several speakers took the podium to explain their concerns about the smoking ban and how it would impact them.

Van Roekel later said the event went extremely well and noted he was impressed with how the participation was diverse, including business owners, employees and concerned citizens, both smokers and non-smokers. He thanked the 16 people who spoke before the audience about citizens’ rights and said he felt people were pleased they could speak their minds in a friendly and peaceful environment. Van Roekel said the issue is not just being for or against smoking, but being in favor of the freedom of choice.

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