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Governor rolls into Chiefland to lend an ear; residents bend it

Levy County loves the governor, but that doesn't stop residents from rising early to speak their mind.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 2002

Levy County loves the governor, but that doesn't stop residents from rising early to speak their mind.

CHIEFLAND -- A governor, up close and personal, is a rare sight in this isolated little town by the Suwannee River. But Gov. Jeb Bush made up for lost time Wednesday.

He spent four hours listening to real people with real problems, from the high cost of prescription drugs to the misuse of Social Security numbers. It was part of Bush's program of holding office hours in more than a dozen cities and towns, many in out-of-the-way places, to close the gap between taxpayers and state government.

Townsfolk began showing up at 5:30 a.m. at a community college center, next door to a discount store. A makeshift welcome sign said "Please form a line toward Sav-A-Lot."

People took numbers and ate pastries while they waited, some for as long as four hours, to tell their stories to Bush or Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. Others simply wanted to be photographed with the governor, or shake his hand.

"This is the biggest thing that's ever happened in Levy County," Galen Unold, who works at a nearby blood bank, said as a drab strip mall became a beehive of activity.

Rufus Meriwether, 76, told Bush that when he got his commercial fishing license, the state gave his Social Security number to nine vendors trying to sell him products. An official sent Meriwether a letter of apology last March, blaming a "computer programming error," but Meriwether wanted to talk to Bush personally.

"I've just been as mad as I can be," Meriwether said. Bush apologized -- twice.

Meveree Pope of Trenton desperately sought help for her 25-year-old grandson, who is disabled from an inflammation of the pancreas, but was turned down for Social Security assistance.

Chiefland, population 1,993, is about 100 miles from Tampa and Tallahassee.

The town has a shopworn look. Jobs are scarce in a place where a Wal-Mart Supercenter is the largest private employer, and City Hall has been in turmoil since officials discovered that police lack arrest powers under Chiefland's charter. All seven officers were put on paid leave last month.

Bush got 55 percent of the vote in Levy in 1998. Two men from Newberry coaxed Bush into posing with them next to their pickup truck, which had a sandwich-board sign in the bed reading: "Thank God for the Bush brothers."

Some visitors are familiar. Nicky Berman of Cape Coral, who's waging a one-man crusade against gambling on Florida Indian reservations, was No. 9 but was put at the end of the line. "I've chased him all over the state. They know me," Berman said.

Grace Kronyak, 86, of nearby Old Town, told Bush about flooding from past rainstorms and alcohol and drug use in her town. She left smiling from ear to ear after being photographed with Bush.

"I'm just a common little nobody with holes in my shoes," she said.

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