Blacks: Jeb will pay for 2000
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
JACKSONVILLE -- Behind the grated windows and concrete walls of north Jacksonville's Denmark restaurant, signs warn that no one with their pants hanging below their buttocks will be served. The line of customers stretches to the door, past images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass on the wall.
Some 16 months after roughly 16,000 African-American votes for president in Duval County were tossed out as invalid, nobody talks politics here. The lunchtime chitchat among patrons munching collard greens and fried fish bounces from the Jacksonville Jaguars to office gossip to Denmark's legendary beef stew.
The contested 2000 election doesn't come up. But nobody says it's forgotten.
"Saying African-Americans are still angry about that election is a big understatement," Susan Phillips, a 30-something school system employee said while waiting for her fried chicken. "People may not talk about it like they used to, and a lot people liked what the president was doing after Sept. 11. But nobody has forgotten, and most people around here think Jeb Bush had a lot to do with giving that election to his brother.
"I think people are more motivated to vote than ever before."
As much as the Sept. 11 attacks muted public grousing over the Florida recount, the controversy is anything but over. Democratic leaders are working to channel resentment over the presidential election into a big Democratic turnout this fall as they try to unseat Gov. Bush.
Among the state's roughly 1-million black voters, that resentment simmers just below the surface. Dozens of African-American voters from Jacksonville to the Tampa Bay area to Miami indicated in interviews that President Bush's disputed victory in 2000 remains a powerful incentive to go to the polls this November to try push the president's younger brother out of the Governor's Mansion. Few are paying much attention to the Democratic primary, but most are united in their opposition to Jeb Bush.
"When your country is attacked, you rally behind the president," said Tim Walker, a music student at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. "But that doesn't change what happened in 2000. There's no doubt I'm going to vote, and I'm going to vote against Jeb Bush. It may never be proven, but I'll always have in my heart that he had something to do with stealing that election."
Dorsey Miller knows he has one of the toughest jobs in Florida. The Bush campaign recently hired the prominent former school administrator from Broward County to coordinate African-American minority outreach efforts.
Miller acknowledges Bush has a tougher job reaching black voters this year than four years ago, despite a strong record of diverse appointments and management-level hires. He says the fault lies partly on Bush and his advisers.
"The perception has been that this governor doesn't care, but what happened was we didn't fight back and didn't say anything (to challenge critics) or put the record out there," said Miller, who estimates he is among 50,000 African-American Republicans in Florida.
But roughly 9 of every 10 black voters are Democrats.
Bush courted black voters in 1998 and won 14 percent of the black vote, an apparent record for a Florida Republican in a statewide race. But his move to substitute his One Florida initiative for affirmative action in university admissions and public contracting has angered many black Democrats. The 2000 election, where African-American votes were disproportionately rejected because of ballot problems, further fuels that distrust.
"We have a tough row to hoe," Miller said. "But we're committed to work as hard as we can to get the governor's record out there."
NW Seventh Avenue in the Liberty City area of Miami is a commercial district with empty, boarded up storefronts, a smattering of black-owned businesses with bars on their windows and few customers, and the occasional mural featuring King or African flags.
"Come unto me, all ye that labor . . . and I shall give you rest," reads the Biblical slogan at Mop City barber shop. Inside, owner Johnny Cheeley turned from the TV soaps and wondered whether some black voters will skip voting because they no longer trust the election system.
He talked softly of the Bush record he sees. Schools are packed with portable classrooms, he said, Florida continues to be ranked at bottom of education statistics, and public school dollars go toward private school vouchers.
Barber Curtis Crews gestured with his electric clippers and complained Democrat Al Gore did not fight hard enough for "the truth" during the 2000 recount.
"I'm not someone who follows politics all that closely, but I'll never forget what happened with that stolen election," Crews said as his customer, W.L. Jordan, nodded in agreement from a worn black leather barber chair. "You get slapped in the face, and you never forget it. That's what happened to blacks in Florida. We got slapped in the face. In November, I think we're going to turn out in record numbers."
A third barber, a young man named Roosevelt Toliver, listened silently for more than 10 minutes. After finishing with his customer, Toliver chased a reporter down the street.
"What really happened is the Democrats tried to steal the election for Al Gore," he said.
Toliver is an avid Republican ("The Roosevelt is for Teddy," he quipped). He ticked off Bush's record as if he were the governor's campaign manager: a new law school for Florida A&M University, diverse hiring and appointments, ending affirmative action programs that he said "institutionalized racism and sexism," more contracts for minority businesses and tougher school standards to ensure people don't graduate high school unable to read.
"People of African descent are tired of the deceit, the lack of ideas and the poor results they've gotten for their votes from Democrats," Toliver said. "It's about communication. Bush must tell his story. He can't allow the Democrats to give an assessment of his record."
On Main Street in West Tampa, it doesn't take much to stir up the half-dozen retirees trading stories, gossip and the occasional beer under the No Loitering signs. Mention Bush -- Jeb or George -- and the 2000 election, and the discussion will burn as long as one of the hickory logs stacked outside the Bar-B-Que King next door.
"People are still angry about the stuff that happened," said Ed Willie Hall, 65, a retired waiter at Morrison's Cafeteria who predicted higher-than-usual voter turnout this fall. "I don't know whether he stole it or not."
Hilton Smith, 69, a retired truck driver and diehard Democrat who has voted in every election he can remember, agreed.
"More people are interested in (politics) now than they were," Smith said. "I got some voting-age kids, and they're talking about voting the next election, and they never voted before. "Granddaddy, Dad, who you going to vote for? I'm going to vote for them, too.' "
Anybody but Bush.
Ira Bell, 55, a former car hauler who manages several properties in Tampa, said President Bush unfairly won. He predicted that Jeb Bush will pay for it come November, and he plans to vote for Tampa lawyer Bill McBride in the Democratic primary.
Neither Bush cares about the working man, Bell said. He argued that while gas prices are soaring and friends are being laid off, the president is using the war in Afghanistan to divert attention from economic troubles at home.
Meanwhile, Bell said, the governor has failed the schools. "People are energized to vote because they want him out of there."
Few black voters recognize the names of three of the four main Democratic candidates for governor: McBride, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach. Most recognize the frontrunner, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
But many voters outside South Florida crinkled their nose or shook their head at the mention of Reno, even as they pledged to back anybody challenging Bush. Reno is afflicted with Parkinson's disease, and some voters said they are worried about her health even as she and her doctors say it should not be a concern. Others allude to Reno's role in the assault on the Branch Davidian complex in Texas and in returning Elian Gonzalez to relatives in Cuba.
"Janet Reno is the only name you hear, but I just don't know that Janet ought to be running, with her health and other problems," Ralph Holmes, a 42-year-old Jacksonville McDonald's manager, said as he left a driver's license office.
On her home turf around Miami, Reno is widely beloved.
Inside her Coconut Grove ranch home, retired educator Frankie Shannon Rolle laughed when asked about McBride.
"She's the person, and she will win," Mrs. Rolle said of Reno. "I've known that lady for a long time, and she has a genuine spirit about her. People are people in her eyes."
Down the street, school bus driver Alice Williams spoke of Reno like a saint.
"That lady came through and helped a heap of poor people get on their feet, and getting these deadbeat dads to pay child support," Mrs. Williams said. "Every black person is going to walk or crawl or do whatever it takes to vote for Janet."
The focus is not on choosing between Democrats in the September primary but on beating Bush in November.
"People made an attempt to move on from that election, but for so long African-Americans didn't have the privilege that others enjoyed, so what happened in 2000 cut straight to the heart," said James Richardson, a 38-year-old computer specialist from Jacksonville. "Even though some people have tried to move on, it's going to be an emotional part of this campaign."
-- Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-9241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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