Assemblyman Edward Vincent, a star running back for the University of Iowa and the L.A. Rams in his playing days, is barreling across Inglewood in his bone-white Cadillac, carrying the ball for a new team.
"It's not about smoking or health," says the 63-year-old Democratic lawmaker, scooting briskly along Century Boulevard with no apparent fear of cop cars. He was mayor here for 14 years.
"It's about choice. It's about this country. If you want to go to a bar and smoke, be my guest," Vincent says in his forceful, gravelly delivery. "If not, go to a bar where they don't smoke."
Vincent--a nonsmoker who lost a sister to lung cancer last year--is presenting his standard argument for why it should be OK to smoke again in bars and casinos, which has been illegal since a statewide ban took effect Jan. 1.
In Sacramento, the first-term legislator is the author of a bill that would lift the ban. It has passed the Assembly but faces major obstacles in the Senate.
Viewed by his opponents as misinformed, at best, on the health risks of smoking and, at worst, a sellout to the Hollywood Park Casino in his district where the ban is reportedly hurting business, Vincent deals with the criticism as he did with rivals on the gridiron.
He plays offense--evident in the way that he noses the Caddy up to the front door of the casino to show off the place. Ashamed to be associated with the interests of a gambling emporium? Hardly.
Doing its bidding in Sacramento? Why not, he says.
The four-year-old casino and 59-year-old adjoining racetrack, Vincent points out, support Inglewood and surrounding communities with hundreds of jobs and spinoff income.
The Hollywood Park complex--track and casino--pour $10 million a year into Inglewood municipal coffers in taxes and fees, local officials say, constituting 20% of the city's revenue.
The region's other big employers fled long ago as the communities in southern Los Angeles County turned from white to minority suburbs. But R.D. Hubbard, the top man at Hollywood Park, "put his money where his mouth is," said Vincent. "He stayed."
The two-story home that the assemblyman shares with his wife, Marilyn, sits just across the street from the track's parking lot, making his smoking bill not just a district bill, he said, but "a backyard bill."
Much of his closeness to Hollywood Park is openly personal. He buys interests in horses that run there, he bets on them, he feeds them carrots when their racing days are over.
And it was he who, as Inglewood mayor, first suggested building a casino next to the Hollywood Park track, Vincent says. "I worked my buns off to get it," said the compact-looking, onetime All-America running back.
Business in the card room dropped 8% in January, largely due to the smoking ban, said Hollywood Park Casino general manager Tom Bowling, forcing the layoff of 17 custodial workers. The casino employs 1,400 workers from nearby communities, most of them minorities, he said.
As for the current smoking battle, Vincent said, he agreed to carry the bill seeking repeal of the ban at the urging of a Hollywood Park lobbyist. He remains unswayed, he said, by those who say that bar and casino employees deserve protection from secondhand smoke, which is linked to the deaths of 7,000 Californians a year.
"Employees make a choice to work in those places," said Vincent, who was a Los Angeles County probation officer for 36 years.
"I played football and if you play football, I guarantee you're going to get hurt. But it was my choice. No one forced me," he said, showing a surgery scar on his knee from the injury that cut short his career with the Rams.
Even his sister, he said, "smoked as a matter of choice."
Supporters of the ban, meanwhile, have given up on converting Vincent. Mark Burgat, with the anti-tobacco American Heart Assn. in Sacramento, said there is no point arguing with Vincent on the health risks of smoking.
"There is no negotiation room in his bill," Burgat said.
Vincent's measure (AB 297) would allow the resumption of smoking in bars, taverns and casinos on Jan. 1, 1999, for two years. Thereafter, government safety agencies would be required to establish safe indoor smoking levels and allow smoking to resume in bars and casinos that meet the standards.
The problem with that, said Burgat, is that there is no safe level of exposure to indoor smoking.
To arrive at some acceptable standard, he said, "you'd literally need a wind tunnel blowing at gale force" to remove cancer-causing carcinogens from rooms where people smoke.
Vincent disputes that claim and shows correspondence from manufacturers assuring him that they can safely clear harmful smoking residue from enclosed rooms.
As Vincent's bill came up in the Assembly in late January, an outcry was being heard in Sacramento from bar owners predicting business failures and from smoking patrons who complained of being forced to change lifelong habits.
Two months later, the clamor to lift the ban has waned somewhat, say anti-smoking advocates, in part because of a radio and newspaper advertising blitz by the ban's supporters urging lawmakers to keep the law in place.
The Vincent measure faces two tough Senate committee hearings, the first scheduled March 25 before the Health and Human Services Committee, where Chairwoman Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) is urging its defeat.
Rejection by the committee, effectively killing its chances of enactment, is a high priority for Watson, and the sooner the better, said her chief of staff, John Miller. The quicker the Legislature can remove doubt that the ban will stick, said Miller, "the quicker the public will adapt and the quicker counties will move to fully enforce the law."
As for Vincent's argument that people deserve a choice in where they can and cannot smoke, that's just "standard tobacco industry blather," said Stanton Glantz, a UC San Francisco medical school professor and a leader of the anti-tobacco movement.
The public, Glantz said, has spoken. He cited Proposition 188 in 1994, which Californians soundly rejected--including 61% of the voters in Vincent's Assembly district. The measure would have repealed California's smoking ban in most public places.
"For Vincent to say he's representing the interests of his constituents is just not true," Glantz said. "He's representing the tobacco industry."
Not so, Vincent said. "I don't even know those guys."
In 1996, the year Vincent ran for the Assembly, state records show that he received one tobacco industry contribution: $1,000 from Philip Morris, and no tobacco money since then.
A larger contributor that year, the records show, was Hollywood Park, which gave Vincent's campaign $21,673, mostly in nonmonetary services such as mail supplies, donated labor and telephone expenses.
Vincent said he does not profit from his advocacy of Hollywood Park's interests. "I didn't get anything out of it. . . . They couldn't have paid me enough money," he said. "Progress for my community was payment enough."
Vincent's long tenure as mayor of Inglewood has left him with a familiarity with his district that few legislators can top.
But the years in volatile city politics have also embroiled Vincent in scraps that have earned him critical press reports and two campaign violations for which he paid $18,000 in fines to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
The charges dealt with the failure to report campaign contributions, in one case on behalf of a city ballot measure that would have given him as mayor a pay raise. The measure failed.
The African American press leveled more serious charges that were repeated by his political opponents but never proven.
"Whatever I did, I paid for it," Vincent said.