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Record has minorities giving Bush a new look

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By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 6, 2002


FORT LAUDERDALE -- Gov. Jeb Bush calls it "crazy." A lot of Democrats would agree.

"This is a crazy thing," Bush told a gathering of African-American community leaders Wednesday. "This conservative Republican actually has a better record than my predecessor on many of these issues. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm very proud of it. And I hope all of you will give me a chance."

Crazy? Savvy is more like it. It's one more sign of how formidable a candidate Bush will be this fall.

Two years ago, Bush could not have come within 1,000 feet of Sistrunk Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in Fort Lauderdale's black community, without drawing a picket line.

This was the governor whose One Florida plan ended race as a factor in state contracts and university admissions and led to the biggest, angriest protests Floridians had seen in years. Tens of thousands picketed him. Like the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, they rode buses all night long to protest the end of affirmative action.

"Jeb Crow," they cruelly called him. "We will remember in November."

They meant November 2000. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Jeb Bush was not on the ballot in Florida that year -- though, if memory serves, his brother George W. was.

Another November is drawing near. Jeb Bush is ahead in every poll, sits atop a mountain of money and has a brother in the White House. He's favored to win again without black votes.

Standing before a group that should be solidly in the Democratic column, Bush asserted this week that he merits reelection, or at least a re-examination of his record by black voters.

He declared Florida more diverse than ever. He cited increases in black admissions and contracts under One Florida. He noted that he appointed the first black man to the Broward Circuit Court bench in 23 years, and backed a new law school at Florida A&M, support for historically black colleges, faith-based efforts and an education policy that he said gives every kid an equal chance.

"The record is clear," Bush said.

As if on cue (and maybe it was), the patriarch of one of Broward's largest black churches rose, as if addressing his flock. The Rev. Dr. Mack King Carter said that if what Bush was saying was true, "we have a lot of homework to do." The pastor was rewriting political scripture. Democrats in Broward, black or white, do not vote for candidates named Bush.

The governor's audience was chosen with care by Dorsey Miller, a black Republican from Fort Lauderdale who holds the title of "African-American outreach coordinator" for the campaign.

Democratic Rep. Chris Smith, who backed Bush in 1998, was vilified by some constituents and withdrew his support after One Florida, heard about the governor's visit to his district.

He said Bush is playing a "shell game," exaggerating his accomplishments, especially in education. Although Smith concedes minorities are doing better under One Florida, he says the way Bush implemented it, by executive order, remains a painful memory.

"The emotional wear-and-tear he needlessly put on the African-American community outweighs it," Smith said. "He got rid of affirmative action at the stroke of a pen with a smile on his face."

Back in March 2000, when students and state workers sang civil rights songs and camped outside his office, Bush looked like toast. But as this week's reaction in Fort Lauderdale showed, that was a long time ago. His guests applauded him, then stood in line awaiting the requisite photo with the governor.

The fleeting memories of Florida voters are one more asset in Bush's political arsenal. When was the last time you saw somebody holding a One Florida protest sign?

-- Steve Bousquet is deputy chief of the Times' Tallahassee bureau.

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