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For now, we'll take DCF chief at his word

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002


News flash:

Jerry Regier is not the bogeyman.

He appears to be a measured, thoughtful man, and smart, too. As the new chief of the state Department of Children and Families, he comes across as a quick study of the agency's swamp of problems.

He demonstrated his agility in a long news conference he held as the Labor Day weekend approached with reporters hooked up by phone across the state.

He said all the right things. Talked about being sympathetic with the "front-line workers." About the need to open up more children's files so we can learn what went wrong in a particular case.

The news conference capped a three-day PR blitz in which Regier tried to convince his audience that he is not some wild-eyed zealot who believes in binding the feet of women and beating the daylights out of children.

I want to believe him. But I'm having trouble.

Regier came to Florida from Oklahoma, where he also ran the child welfare agency. But before that, for four years in the mid-1980s, Regier was the president of the Family Research Council, one of those conservative groups that helped to shape and express the Reagan administration's often sanctimonious social policy.

In 1986, while he was with the Family Research Council, Regier signed a "Manifesto for the Christian Church" which objected to, among other things "state usurpation of parental rights."

The manifesto was issued by something called the Coalition on Revival.

Regier left the Family Research Council in 1988. A year later, his name showed up on an 18-page, off-the-right-side-of-the-charts statement by this same Coalition on Revival. It condemned working women, and said abuse was not a legitimate cause for leaving a marriage.

Now Regier says he had nothing to do with the paper. He said when he realized how extreme the group was, he quit. That was in 1989. Mind you, he'd had contact with the coalition since 1986. So it took him three years to wise up.

This is where things start to get sticky about Jerry Regier. He has gone out of his way to put distance between himself and those years.

He ends up sounding like that infamous Democrat who swore he never inhaled.

And you end up wondering about Regier's sincerity. A sincere man would acknowledge his record and stand by it, not run.

Still, and this is the frustrating part, I want to believe Regier.

I want to believe not for his sake but for the sake of the children he is supposed to protect. Nothing else matters.

He has said he can keep his religious views separate from his obligations as a government official. I want to believe that, too.

He really did get thrown into the deep end of the pool when Gov. Jeb Bush picked him. As other Republicans before them, they underestimated just how much a problem Regier's record would be. They underestimated just how moderate -- not liberal, but moderate -- Florida is. What Regier stood for -- in the 1980s, if not now -- scares people, plain and simple.

He has so much work to do. DCF has to stop being a national joke. Children should not get misplaced like old shoes. Workers must not be beaten down to the point of giving up and dashing out the revolving door. Regier must, in very short order, get the governor and Legislature to pay for these things. It still comes as a shock to some people: This will cost money.

This is where I'm at; my head is one place, my heart another. I am taking Regier at his word that he won't mix the scary views of his past with the pressing needs of the present.

That's my head. My heart says don't bet on it. Just watch, and wait.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813)-226-3402.

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