Down but Not (Yet) Out

I met Ben Doerflinger and Shannon, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, last month at my favorite Village Inn in Aurora, where they were plotting a revolution in the soon-be-outlawed smoking section. They thought they had a shot at beating back the smoking ban due to go into effect July 1 -- a new law that will essentially make it illegal to smoke a cigarette anywhere in the state of Colorado but your own home, hiding under a blanket in a locked closet with a fan running.

They were confident that they could take on Governor Bill Owens, the Colorado Legislature, the Colorado Restaurant Association -- which, in total abandonment of a large portion of its constituency, went sissy and backed the statewide ban because, in the CRA's opinion, one comprehensive ban was fairer than a hodgepodge of local bans, and besides, giving in and giving up is always easier than fighting a long battle destined to be lost by inches -- and everyone else in this nanny state who feels it's their responsibility to tell people how to live their lives and run their businesses.

Ben and Shannon had no lawyers or lobbyists on their side, no polling units or phone banks or friends at the Capitol. They really had no understanding of how the legislative process worked beyond what they remembered from that Schoolhouse Rock song about the little bill that wanted to become a law. "We were just sitting in the living room one day, and we figured maybe we could do something," Shannon says. "So we got on the Internet that night and started learning."

"It was basically a ground-up kind of thing," Ben adds. "But I was thinking, you know, look at that pot-initiative guy." Not only did Mason Tvert manage to get Initiative 100 on the Denver ballot last November, but it passed -- and now it's legal to own less than an ounce of weed in Denver (if you ignore state law). And come November 7, there may be another initiative on the statewide ballot calling for the legalization of marijuana possession across Colorado. "He was, like, 24," Ben continues. "I'm 25. If he can do it, why can't I?"

Ben and Shannon decided that their best bet was an initiative, too, one that would ask voters to overturn the smoking ban already signed into law by Owens. They'd call their proposal the "Smoking Ban Repeal Initiative," and even if Coloradans voted against the repeal, that would be okay with Ben. "At least then, it's not what the government is telling us to do," he says. "It's what the people wanted. I just wanted us to be the decision-makers on this, not them."

What pissed him off wasn't the new law so much as the way it had been enacted, over the strident objections of some private citizens and business owners, and with loopholes for a select few. The market -- a beautifully self-correcting entity -- was already leaning in a non-smoking direction, with the vast majority of fine-dining restaurants, most hotel restaurants, many family restaurants and bars, and even some clubs choosing to ban smokers from lighting up inside. Smokers knew where they were welcome, knew there were places where even certain bitter young restaurant critics could go for a couple cups of coffee and a smoke while reading the newspaper or scribbling down rants about sushi and strip malls.

When I met Ben and Shannon, they'd already drafted their initiative and sent it to a legislative committee for review, then made some technical changes in anticipation of the Colorado Secretary of State signing off on the title and language on May 17. Once she did, they figured they'd need to collect 120,000 signatures just to reach the minimum of 68,000 approved signatures (meaning no Ben Dovers, no Homer Sexuals) required for getting the measure on the ballot. And then they'd have to convince a majority of Colorado voters to overturn the no-smoking law. In my opinion, it was pretty much a suicide mission, the kind of thing that even career politicians and strategists with plenty of time and loads of money still shy away from all across the country.

But it was perfect for a couple of late-blooming activists like Ben and Shannon, in their T-shirts and old jeans, looking like they'd be much more at home at the Iliff Park Saloon than standing before the secretary of state, sketching out their campaign strategy on napkins. "No one else was doing anything," Ben says, shrugging. "We just thought we should."

Ben works for Marlboro -- but not as an executive, not in the offices. He's one of those guys who, for ten bucks an hour, stalks the bars looking for people smoking competing brands, then tries to win them over to Philip Morris products by giving away free packs of Reds and offering coupons through the mail. So he knows a lot of smokers, a lot of bartenders, a lot of bar owners. In the pols' parlance, he's "intimately acquainted with his base." His bosses didn't even know what he was doing -- but smokers in bars across the metro area were catching on to the heroic actions of this mild-mannered cigarette pimp.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan