The biggest accomplishment of state Sen. Rod Monroe's 30-year political career went up in smoke last week.
Monroe, a Democrat who represents East Multnomah County and Happy Valley, often cites his authorship of the 1981 Oregon Indoor Clean Air Act as his top political achievement.
The act barred smoking in most public buildings, a ban in keeping with the 64-year-old Monroe's reputation as a top tobacco foe.
A fitness buff who's finished 20-plus marathons and still runs 5 miles a day, Monroe has built his reputation over three decades as a state lawmaker, Metro councilor, member of the David Douglas and Mount Hood Community College boards and lay minister.
It came as a shock, then, that Monroe spoke up for Portland Meadows Racetrack to get exempted when the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee last week considered a bill extending the indoor smoking ban to all workplaces.
Monroe argued that banning smoking in the massive enclosed three-story clubhouse where bettors are could imperil "hundreds of jobs" and claimed that track employees aren't exposed to secondhand smoke.
But he admitted his real concern about Senate Bill 571 —which will primarily affect taverns and bars —was more personal.
"I have a conflict of interest," Monroe told his committee colleagues before voting. "My daughter-in-law works there."
Monroe's support for the Portland Meadows exemption stunned a fellow Portland Democrat, Sen. Ginny Burdick, who carried the bill into committee.
"Rod is 'Mr. Anti-Smoking,'" says Burdick. "When he supported the exemption, I walked out of the room."
Burdick wanted the bill to pass, and temporarily relinquished her seat to Senate President Peter Courtney, who voted for the exemption. Putting aside that maneuvering, Monroe's vote remains disturbing.
His willingness to sacrifice long-held principles for his daughter-in-law exemplifies self-interested law-making. Declaring a conflict of interest after arguing for the exemption does little to mitigate Monroe's myopia in advocating for his son's wife.
Legislative rules require lawmakers to vote even if they declare a conflict, says Janice Thompson of the watchdog group Democracy Reform Oregon. "But one would hope the vote would reflect a big-picture policy assessment rather than economic concerns of a family member," Thompson says.
And Monroe's claim that track employees aren't exposed to secondhand smoke is untrue.
The three levels of Portland Meadows' enclosed clubhouse are all connected by an open atrium that lets air circulate among all three levels. Smoking is permitted throughout the ground level, and drifts upward. Smoking is also allowed in a large section of the second level and on parts of the third level.
Last Sunday, a lightly attended non-racing day when bettors focused their attention on simulcasts from other tracks, smoke was easily detectable on all three levels at Portland Meadows. The smoke affects servers and cashiers, though not Monroe's daughter-in-law Vestal Monroe, an accountant whose office is far from smoky common areas.
(Portland Meadows says a renovation is underway to improve ventilation but smoke will still be allowed in "areas not to exceed 30 percent of total public areas.")
Monroe says he's still anti-smoking, pointing to his votes against exemptions for bingo halls and cigar bars. He says the track exemption helps 35,000 Oregon workers in smoky bars because it ensures support for SB 571 from powerful Portland Meadows lobbyist Larry Campbell.
"I think I increased the likelihood the bill will pass," Monroe says.