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    Missing girl is reminder of old problems, but won't hurt Bush

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 12, 2002

    Florida loses a 5-year-old girl in its care, and bureaucrats remain oblivious for 15 months. Headlines across the country herald the governmental ineptitude, and the political buzz starts: Here's a scandal that could rock Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election campaign from now until November.

    Nonsense.

    Floridians have read about foul-ups in their child welfare system for decades. Little Rilya Wilson is just the latest in a sickening parade of young Floridians who become briefly famous symbols for how horribly government sometimes fails.

    If Florida voters really became energized over child welfare incompetence, if they really went to the polls livid about government failing to protect kids on society's fringes, would the system have continued to look so troubled for decades?

    "The brutal truth is I don't think that many Floridians care," said Peter Rudy Wallace, the former Democratic state House Speaker from St. Petersburg. "We are all kind of involved in our daily lives, and we're interested in things that directly affect us. . . . This is just another long series of tragedies that no one has had the will to solve."

    Clearly, the story of a bureaucracy losing a little girl tarnishes Gov. Bush. He campaigned as a creative and compassionate politician bent on making government work better -- including the child protection system. Some Democrats see Rilya Wilson as a poster child for a reformer failing to produce results.

    But barring a series of new cases of missing or abused kids showing more state negligence, lasting political damage looks unlikely.

    Nobody can fairly accuse a governor who more than doubled the Department of Children and Families budget of having ignored festering problems. Bush knows he's in trouble if he looks indifferent or dismissive of the holes in Florida's child protection system.

    His initial response gave openings to critics. He seized on the system's problems under Gov. Lawton Chiles and repeatedly stated the obvious, that government can't replace families.

    "Gov. Bush says the state is reviewing the case, but the government can only go so far. I say baloney," said conservative Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who has been hammering Bush on the Rilya Wilson case. "How about a little courage, Jeb Bush? How about some action?"

    Bush and his advisers quickly saw the potential fallout. His office distributed to reporters across the state records showing how much money he has funneled into DCF. He ordered state workers to personally check on nearly 45,000 children in state custody. He appointed four credible people to quickly examine how the system failed Rilya Wilson.

    Critics wondered why Bush didn't promptly fire DCF head Kathleen Kearney. But firing her could just as easily have been tagged as politically expedient. It also could send a signal that Bush's efforts at improving Florida child welfare system had flopped. Unlike some of his Republican colleagues in the Legislature, Bush so far has not acknowledged "systematic" problems at DCF.

    Decrying failures in the child protection system hardly takes a profile in courage. It's a perfectly legitimate political target for election-year scrutiny, but it can backfire if it comes off as exploiting tragedy.

    Bush the candidate jumped on the Chiles administration in 1998: "It is no wonder that people lose faith in their government when the state can't account for the safety of abused children."

    This year, Democrats see the issue showing Bush as an ineffective leader.

    "Jeb Bush came into being governor with no experience governing and running the state in public office, and I don't think he has done anything to show that he has learned while he's been in office," Janet Reno told the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last week.

    "He came into the office saying he was going to do something about the child welfare system, but it's only getting worse."

    As Bush can attest, there's a downside to promising to fix a chronically troubled bureaucracy. If you win the election, you might very well find yourself having to explain failure.

    Unless Bush suddenly develops a tin-ear, Rilya Wilson should be no long-term political problem for the governor. She's merely a reminder of how long the system has failed.

    -- Adam C. Smith is political editor of the Times. He can be reached at 727-893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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