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Advocate criticized lawmakers unfairly

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

Jack Levine is a widely known and very outspoken advocate for Florida's children.

As president of the nonprofit Center for Florida's Children, he is always ready with a quote or two and steadily bombards us with his wisdom and press releases.

Levine often is critical of legislators and governors for not spending enough money on children. And so it came as no surprise last month when Levine put out a letter trashing legislators as they were about to vote on budget cuts.

"Floridians should be distressed that the Florida Legislature has produced a budget cutting product, which, if passed, will result in pain and suffering for thousands of our neighbors -- young and older, and so many in between," Levine wrote in a tough-talking letter distributed late on Dec. 4 but dated Dec. 5 -- the day legislators gathered to vote on $1-billion in cuts.

He questioned the ethics of legislators who would gather at fundraising receptions and "elegantly catered dinners" while cutting money that was desperately needed by others.

His tough but somewhat inaccurate letter was published in this newspaper as a letter to the editor on Dec. 6.

What Levine didn't tell us was that he quickly circulated a second letter to every legislator on the morning of Dec. 5 apologizing and retracting the criticism he leveled at them in the first letter.

"The tone and content of the letter I issued yesterday regarding the impact of budget cuts on children's programs, in review, could and should have been better stated," Levine began.

Levine blamed his misguided remarks on "the intricacies of budget analysis" and said he had received additional information making it clear that the cuts affected more administrative areas than direct services.

"I appreciate this opportunity to correct my misstatements, and look forward to working with each of you as we seek to achieve mutual goals for children, families and our state," Levine concluded.

Levine has yet to deliver the same groveling apology to news organizations that got the original. Instead, it was delivered by legislators offended by his first letter. It is a stark contrast to Levine's tough-talking news conferences and letters to the state's news media.

Asked this week about his failure to communicate the second letter, Levine acknowledges he should have given equal distribution to the second letter. He has no excuse.

By concealing the apology, Levine looks like a hero to the outside world while behind the scenes he was currying favor with legislators. It also makes us look like we were all too eager to jump on the Legislature with inaccurate criticism and unwilling to publish his retraction.

"Florida's children deserve more responsible advocacy than that which you have recently demonstrated," Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, said in a letter responding to Levine.

Since 1999, legislators have increased money for services to children by some $417-million, Silver noted in a response that poked holes in Levine's original letter.

Levine was being duplicitous. It was a disservice to the hundreds of advocates who fight for funds for Florida's underprivileged.

It is not easy to fight in the legislative arena for folks who don't have money to donate to campaign coffers. Advocates given to Levine's kind of hyperbole may get ink out of their criticism, but it doesn't make them any more credible to legislators or reporters.

Consider our plight the next time Levine cries "wolf." Should we believe him or await the quiet retraction that might come a day later?

Legislators are ready targets for criticism, but it is unfair to let someone accuse them of not caring about children and remain silent when that person retracts the criticism.

Now we've set the record straight.

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