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Smoking Ban Ignored at Hill Club

Democratic Restaurant Permits Cigars but Never Sought Exemption

In most after-work situations, Republicans and Democrats tend to go their own way, but ever since an indoor smoking ban went into effect in Washington, D.C., the National Democratic Club seems to be the hip place to head for members of both parties.

“If that’s where the party is, that’s where we go,” said one GOP lobbyist who doesn’t smoke but has visited the club with his colleagues, as “No Smoking” signs are now posted at the conservative Capitol Hill Club.

The newfound spirit of bipartisanship aside, the Democratic hangout is not following the law: A Health Department spokeswoman confirmed Friday the club has not yet applied for the necessary exemption from the ban, required for any establishment to allow smoking on its premises.

The D.C. Department of Health sent a staffer to the club on Thursday, according to Phillippa Mezile, a department spokeswoman. While the staffer did not see or smell any smoke, she did issue a courtesy reminder about the smoking ban, Mezile said.

To be exempt from the citywide ban on smoking in public places — including bars and restaurants — a business must generate at least 10 percent of its total annual revenue from the sale of tobacco products.

Earlier this month, the Democratic Club’s member services manager, Dee Johnson, confirmed the establishment was permitting smoking on its premises because the club is now a cigar bar. (While smoking had always been allowed at the club, it previously functioned primarily as a restaurant and only recently reclassified itself as a cigar bar.)

But National Democratic Club General Manager Christine Hilty declined to comment further last week.

Angela Bradbery, a spokeswoman for Smokefree DC, a citizen-based group that lobbied for the smoking ban, said exemptions are difficult to obtain because so much profit has to go to tobacco sales.

“I highly doubt they would qualify,” she said.

Bradbery called the decision to continue to allow patrons to light up “really bad.”

“It’s pretty outrageous,” Bradbery said. “They can’t just declare themselves exempt and allow smoking.”

Bradbery urged the club to take a cue from Pelosi’s smoking ban in the Speaker’s Lobby. That, of course, comes across as ironic to many Republicans.

“I just find it, like, the height of hypocrisy,” the lobbyist said.

But many seem to be joining the Democrats in their smoking celebrations anyway. For those die-hard Republicans who never would even think about hanging out with Democrats after work, smoking options in Washington are limited. The Capitol Hill Club, the restaurant where GOP Members do their wining and dining, is enforcing the ban.

“Our board has decided to comply with the law,” a restaurant manager said.

There are no plans to apply for an exemption from the law, the manager said. But the restaurant is closely monitoring patron response to the law and might decide to create an outdoor smoking area down the road.

Club officials might have to consider that soon, as regulars say the restaurant has emptied ever since the ban went into effect.

The Democratic Club began shortly after President Harry Truman left office in 1953, when Democrats in Washington realized they needed a place to continue to socialize. So, the Women’s National Democratic Club allowed a small group to meet on its premises for a weekly luncheon, according to the club’s Web site.

Eventually, those meetings turned into the National Capitol Democratic Club, which moved locations around town before landing on Capitol Hill. Membership dwindled following the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, but the club was revitalized 10 years later, moving to its current location on Ivy Street Southeast.

And while the club apparently has now become a cigar bar, but there are other ways establishments can get around the law.

Bars and restaurants can show they have suffered an economic hardship because of the ban, although establishments must be smoke-free for three months before they can apply for an exemption.

Theatrical performances, hotel rooms, medical studies and retail stores that generate at least 25 percent of their total annual revenue from tobacco products also can apply for an exemption.

According to city law, the Health Department is allowed to inspect workplaces and other public places for compliance with the law. Persons who fail to comply can be fined $100 to $1,000 for the first offense, while businesses can be fined up to $500 per day.