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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush's office organized a news conference last week to demonstrate -- or so it hoped -- massive support for the school code revision. Such symbolic rituals have become frequent events here, for which I suppose we can thank television. The game is to muster as many supporters as you can, put them all on camera (if only a few before the microphone) and say by body language to potential troublemakers, "Don't even think about opposing this."
About two dozen people were squinting into the lights. I wish I had counted precisely, because it may have set a new Bush administration record. Frank Brogan, the lieutenant governor, cracked wise about leading off for "the cast of Ben-Hur."
But the symbolism spoke more than perhaps they intended. It turned out to be the absences that were most conspicuous.
The House speaker and Senate president were there, pretending to be friendly. There were representatives from the junior colleges, the universities, the school boards, the school superintendents, the PTA, the state Board of Education and the nonpublic schools. There were too many of these "stakeholders," as they were described, to introduce them all.
Amid them, however, there were no stakeholders from the teachers' union or the Democratic minorities in the Legislature. There was a Democratic school superintendent, but he looked rather lonely.
To many, that symbolized the administration's apparent belief that it did not need or want the Democrats even to pass something that was supposed to be both largely uncontroversial and absolutely indispensable.
The Democrats repaid the slight by spending the rest of the week tossing bombs at the 1,785-page bill and actually got the Senate to take a stand -- if only for a day or two -- in favor of reducing class sizes. They know something about symbolism, too.
Asked about the conspicuous absentees, Bush said he didn't consider the bill "a partisan question" and joked that Brogan, his usual fall guy, must have been in charge of the guest list. Afterward, communications director Katie Muniz left a telephone message that two Democratic legislators, Rep. Doug Wiles of St. Augustine and Sen. Rod Smith of Gainesville, had been invited but did not attend.
Those were curious choices. Though Wiles is the minority-leader designate, it was Lois Frankel, the present leader, who should have been invited first. Smith, the only true freshman Democrat in the Senate, is neither minority leader nor minority leader-designate nor even a member of the education committee. It's as if the administration was attempting to marginalize the Democrats by deciding which of them it would recognize.
Wiles said that he had received a visit and a briefing on the bill from a Bush staffer but heard nothing he construed as an invitation. Smith described a similar visit which he did take as an invitation. At a Democratic caucus, "I was somewhat surprised to find out I would be the only one attending, so I called back and said I wouldn't come."
At the Florida Education Association, president Maureen Dinnen had been invited and had agreed to attend, but changed her mind when the governor's people called back and said she wouldn't have a speaking role. Unwilling to be just a photo prop, Dinnen said she would issue a statement instead.
"Let's face it, this guy doesn't have a bipartisan . . . not even a bone," Frankel complained when I saw her later. "It's the same way in the House, the same way with Bush . . . I don't know whether it's the mark of inexperience or arrogance . . . .
"He has taken the attitude that he doesn't need us, therefore he doesn't need to listen to what we say."
But as it turned out, Bush did need them, and he should have listened. The House bill contained a religious freedom section that had no obvious purpose except to stir up trouble in the schools. The Democrats fought it, and, predictably, lost. The Senate wanted no part of it either, but at the end of a long, essentially wasted day its negotiators gave in -- not only to that, but on nearly every other difference between the two houses.
When the "compromise" hit the Senate floor Friday morning, however, it wasn't just the Democratic senators who had had enough. Though a few Republicans worried about satanists and hare krishnas seeing opportunity in the bill, the GOP majority was simply disgusted that the House, to satisfy conservative religious pressure, was insisting on saddling an essential bill with an unnecessary controversy. Only 15 of the 40 senators are Democrats, but President John McKay said he doubted there would have been 10 votes to pass the bill if that provision remained.
"I think you govern the Senate by listening to the members," McKay explained.
That's how the House should be governed too, and the point should not be lost on Jeb Bush either. He needed Democrats to get elected but doesn't appear to have thought of needing them since. The four-day failure to pass the school code is expensive evidence that he was wrong.