Of stogies and state

Times Staff Writer

There he is, Juan Vargas, the state assemblyman known for his antitobacco leanings, in the state that prides itself as having the strictest smoking policies in the country -- there he is, watching from his Capitol building office as newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger puts flame to stogie in the courtyard two stories below.

In the weeks following, Vargas watches as Schwarzenegger's people cover the cement with artificial grass and erect a large tent -- then strike that one and assemble the 12-by-16-foot cabana-style tent that remains standing today.

Word travels up through the six floors of legislative offices that surround the courtyard on all sides: "It's a smoking tent," an aide tells another aide. "A meeting tent," says an assemblyman. "A deal-making tent," says a senator.

"I hate tobacco," Vargas says. "I think it's a terrible thing." But Vargas doesn't mind the smoking tent, which has become the governor's de facto office. The only time Vargas noticed Schwarzenegger breaking the law -- a law that Vargas sponsored: no smoking within 20 feet of a public building's windows or doors -- "was when I lured him," he says.

A group of children visiting Vargas asked to see Schwarzenegger. Vargas glanced toward the courtyard, noticed a muscled silhouette and suggested the children "bang on the window."

After a minute of enthusiastic pounding, "I saw the big arm come out and literally swat his aide out of the way," Vargas says. Schwarzenegger emerged, cigar in teeth, to give the thumbs-up and pose for pictures.

"He didn't put his cigar down, but that's fine," Vargas says. "It was a very nice thing for him to do."

The governor's new office

CIGARS have long been part of Schwarzenegger's public persona -- father-in-law Sargent Shriver introduced him to cigars, and he has twice graced the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. The smoking tent is no surprise to those who know him. It's "typical of his creativity" to construct a business environment where he can "smoke a cigar, schmooze and drink coffee," says longtime friend and personal financial advisor Paul Watcher. Schwarzenegger came up with the idea on his first day in office, Watcher says, and he paid for it himself.

The location of the courtyard allows Schwarzenegger to control access: A California Highway Patrol officer guards the entrance to the governor's outer office, and another officer flanks the door leading to a conference room, which leads outside to the tent. "I don't know about security at the White House," says one CHP officer, "but this is pretty close." The setup means that while anybody can peer down from above, only the select have the chance to gaze up from below.

On a recent Thursday morning, a reporter sits in the governor's outer office for nearly two hours, waiting to spend less than five minutes in the tent. The office is filled with chatter and movement -- Sierra Club activists lobbying to protect Hearst Ranch; business interests lobbying for this or that legislation; kids who ask to see Schwarzenegger but get his business card instead. Kristen Garner, the receptionist who worked under Gov. Gray Davis as well, says there has been "much more traffic" since Schwarzenegger moved in. When she leaves to use the restroom the crowd swells and the line to her desk winds around the room.

Then Terri Carbaugh, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman, arrives and whisks the reporter into the inner sanctum. First Lady Maria Shriver has lined the conference room with paintings of the California countryside in spring, but there's no time to dawdle. Carbaugh raises a screen, unlocks another door and ushers the reporter outside. The tent is fashioned of brown -- one might say cigar brown -- Sunbrella fabric, and it luxuriates in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by plants and metal picnic tables and chairs.

One side of the tent is open; another is partly open and draped with mosquito netting. Inside, the faux-grass floor is covered with a woven mat, and a small but powerful fan creates a pleasant breeze, keeping the tent remarkably cool. Six brown rattan swivel chairs surround a large glass table on which sits a crystal ashtray emblazoned with the Cuban cigar label Montecristo. Two cigar stubs lie in the ashtray. Somebody has left a silver hand-exerciser on the brown humidor nearby. There is a pile of magazines on a table at the opposite side of the tent, topped by an issue of Muscle & Fitness featuring: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Time is up. On the way out, Carbaugh tells the reporter, "It's really no big deal. Just a tent."

A Hollywood precedent

"ONE can safely say," says State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr, "that never before in the history of California has its governor conducted significant business in a smoking tent."

But if there's no precedent in Sacramento, there is precedent in Hollywood. Just look as far as the governor's buddy John Milius, who directed Schwarzenegger in "Conan the Barbarian" (1982). Milius long ago stopped requiring his own trailer on movie sets -- like Schwarzenegger, he prefers to work while smoking cigars in a tent.

Actually, Milius claims it was he who introduced Schwarzenegger to stogies in the first place. Good stogies, that is -- Cuban stogies. "When I did 'Conan,' " he says, "I made sure there was a box of cigars open so anyone could come get one. Issue cigars, Montecristo No. 4." Schwarzenegger had "smoked cigars a little before," Milius says, "but it doesn't take you long to get hooked on Cuban cigars. He got started on good Cuban cigars. It's probably a narcotic of some sort."

When Schwarzenegger arrived in Sacramento, he announced his intention to bring Democrats and Republicans together, to unify the fractured Legislature -- and has since held many negotiations in his smoking tent. This is not the first time he has guided opposing points of view into his own smoke-filled province. Milius remembers the monthly cigar nights at Schatzi on Main, the Santa Monica restaurant formerly owned by Schwarzenegger. Brother-in-law Bobby Shriver would sit on one side of Schwarzenegger, and Milius, a staunch fiscal conservative, on the other. "We had great political arguments," he says.

"Arnold would always get up and go to every table and talk to people," Milius says. But no one could sit at Schwarzenegger's table without his invitation.

Likewise, not all California legislators have been invited into the tent. Those who have usually return to their offices with a keepsake. "You can always tell when someone has been to see the governor," says Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, because "they're running around with a cigar in their hand."

'Do you like stogies?'

An economy of cigars has burgeoned in the Capitol. Even nonsmokers, who predominate in the Legislature, seek out the governor's personal stogies -- which are actually Daniel Marshall cigars with "Arnold Schwarzenegger" printed in gold on their cellophane wrappers. (Daniel Marshalls retail from $100 to $200 for a box of 25.)

Aghazarian describes the gifting process: Schwarzenegger invites you into the tent, opens a humidor or a box of cigars, pushes it toward you and says (cue heavy Austrian accent), "Do you like stogies?" or "Here. Have a stogie." Aghazarian says he has received "a number of them."

Assemblywoman Nicole Parra has received none, but says that Legislative Secretary Richard Costigan "was supposed to get me one."

Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes: "He hasn't given me one, but if you speak with him, please tell him that Assemblywoman Reyes wants one." (Schwarzenegger has given Reyes "big gummy candies" in the likeness of his head. "My nephews got a kick out of biting the governor's head off," she says.)

Sen. John Burton finds smoking "a detestable habit," so when in the tent he sits downwind. "Beats talking to somebody in the bathroom," he says. Still, Burton has accepted cigars from the governor, which he promptly gives away. The ranking Democrat in Sacramento, he apparently receives better cigars than most. "I think they're Cohibas or Montecristos," he says. "Contraband from Cuba."

Sometimes, cigars flow toward Schwarzenegger from outside the Capitol. Pleased with the governor's workers' compensation reform, Renwood Winery founder and former cigar manufacturer Robert Smerling sent a box of cigars to Schwarzenegger via Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi. (Nakanishi, for the record, has received four cigars from the governor. One immediately went to his wife, the rest to constituents.)

Schwarzenegger is one of the cigar world's "charismatic leaders," Smerling says. "I can't think of too many politicians who would have the moxie to build the tent.... When I bring tourists to Sacramento, from all over the world, they want to see the tent.... Arnold is standing up for the average man.... Arnold is taking us out of the closet."

Where there's smoke, there's ire

The smoke wafting from Sacramento has drawn criticism from health organizations and antismoking groups. A letter addressed to Schwarzenegger, cosigned by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn. and the American Lung Assn. of California, reads: "... we are deeply disappointed at several recent public depictions of your use and promotion of cigars, and we urge you to refrain from modeling this dangerous habit."

Laurie Comstock, founder of Tobacco Survivors United, organized a Valentine's Day protest on the Capitol steps. The governor's smoking tent "sets a horrible example for children," she says. "It's wrong of him to flaunt it. Everybody who reads about him reads about his cigars."

Jim Walker, director of Stop Tobacco Abuse of Minors Pronto (STAMP), points out the "cute irony" that Schwarzenegger's "most notable accomplishment when he came into office was passing a $15-billion bond measure. But each year the cost of tobacco to California is $15.8 billion. Dollars, as well as lives, are at stake."

On this Thursday afternoon, Boy Scout Troop 550 from Northridge -- in Sacramento for a river rafting trip -- is exploring the Capitol.

Does the governor inspire kids to smoke?

"It might attract stupid kids," says 11-year-old Scout Ricky Primerano. "But cigars aren't as bad as cigarettes."

"Yes they are!" shouts an older, taller Scout. "They're much worse."

Seventeen-year-old Chris Thompson says he admires Schwarzenegger. "He brought himself up from nothing," Thompson says. "From Austria, to a movie star, then to governor.... I have asthma, I should hate smoking, but I think he should have the freedom to smoke. If I saw him, I wouldn't even notice the cigar."

As the Scouts walk away, 14-year-old Cera Duchan -- along for the rafting trip -- hangs back. "I don't think he should smoke while he's working on California business," she tells the reporter, shyly. "There are so many people who admire him for his movies, and he has been promoting health issues. To go and smoke a cigar, that's an oxymoron," she says.

Convergence

USC anthropology professor Alexander Moore notes that Native Americans have long gathered to smoke tobacco. Tribes generally congregate in "enclosed spaces, separated from the outside," and smoke tobacco to "drive away angry spirits," he says. Their purpose, like the governor's stated purpose, is generally to "bring the community together."

Moore doubts that Schwarzenegger modeled his tent on Native American traditions, but says, "In human evolution and culture we find the same patterns arising for the same purposes. The people doing it are not consciously looking at the old pattern. We call it 'convergence.' "

Psychologists consulted for this story are divided on assigning cigars a special significance. It was, after all, Sigmund Freud who supposedly said that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But stogies do keep appearing in the mouths of powerful, charismatic men -- such as Freud himself, Bill Clinton (who either smokes or chews, depending on whom you ask) and Schwarzenegger.

The smoking tent is "something of a government within a government," says Occidental College psychology professor Elmer Griffin. The governor's decision to fill his domain with stogie smoke, Griffin says, "makes you want to ask again a question that has been answered so much that it seems passe: Why the cigar?"

Few legislators purport to know, or care, why Schwarzenegger smokes cigars.

"These are not the details I spend my time on," says Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. "I don't care where he smokes, when he smokes, or who he smokes with." (Goldberg has not received a cigar from the governor.)

Sen. Roy Ashburn (score: one cigar, sitting in a cup on his desk) says, "Every governor has had items with their names on them. Davis sent me a birthday card with his name stamped on it. [Pete] Wilson had his name on pens. This governor likes cigars. They're just thoughtful little mementos."

As the workday wanes, aides gather on the Capitol steps to inhale cigarettes.

"Sometimes we find cigar butts in the ashtray," says a self-described "little slave staffer" who refuses to give her name. "We hear that Schwarzenegger walks the halls at night."

Her compatriots giggle and nod. The staffer has been warned against speaking to the press, she says -- but the reporter keeps listening and she keeps talking.

"You can't smoke in buildings in California, but you can smoke in a hole in a building?" she says incredulously, and looks toward the building's entrance. "They would like to ship us smokers off to Canada." Did you know, she asks, that the air intake valves for the building are located in the courtyard, near the tent? That you can smell cigar smoke in legislative offices?

Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate, confirms: "Smoke gets into the intake valves and gets into the offices," he says. "People gripe." But the reporter was unable to find any legislators willing to gripe on record.

Outside the tent

After a long Thursday on the Assembly floor, Majority Leader Dario Frommer is spending his evening at Sacramento International Airport, his flight to Burbank delayed for over an hour. Even worse, a reporter happens to be on the same flight.

Few legislators will complain about Schwarzenegger's tent on record because "the governor is thin-skinned," says the unshaven Frommer. "People who say things critical of him find themselves in his crosshairs. He does not take criticism well."

That aside, "I'm a cigar lover," Frommer says. "He hasn't invited me in yet."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°