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The governor plays rough

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- It has been no secret in this company town that Jeb Bush and his buddies play rough. Now, the world knows, thanks to the governor having boasted of "devious plans" and other strategies to a group of Panhandle politicians.

Among them was reporter Alisa LaPolt of the Gannett News Service. She has covered Bush since the second month of his administration, but he apparently did not recognize her as a journalist. And so, in an unguarded moment, the other Jeb Bush came out.

Was it the warm and cuddly fellow who gets traffic lights for school kids? Not exactly.

-- This one cracks wise and crudely about the sexual orientation of a missing child's purported caregivers.

-- He schemes to sabotage the class-size amendment, if voters approve it.

"I have a couple of devious plans if this thing passes," he said. Rather than respond in good faith to simply raise taxes (or repeal the tax cuts that could have paid for it) he'd send them another amendment presumably painting the tax and budget choices as horribly as possible.

-- He may try to get off the hook of the teacher pay issue by having the Legislature prescribe salaries. But he may wait until after the campaign to float this, as it would be a "philosophical reversal" that would be inconvenient to explain on the campaign trail.

There could be sound reasons to invade the historic prerogative of local school boards. The way Bush explained it, however, implied a malice among the motives: union busting.

"A chunk of the teachers salary will be taken out of the hands of the unions and school districts to negotiate," he said.

Republican operatives are known to have matched voter registration rolls with the rosters of universities and the Board of Regents about the time the board was abolished. Now the new Board of Education is noising about unilaterally abrogating the old board's collective bargaining contracts.

Such tactics are the signs of an administration that is too comfortable with power, too accustomed to having its way -- as when the Legislature let him appoint all the judicial nominating commissioners.

It may be premature to compare Bush with Huey Long, as some are wont to do. Long, after all, controlled both houses of the Louisiana Legislature. Here, Baby Huey has yet to fully master the Senate. But, like Long, he is already more feared than respected by people who didn't support his election.

Here is an example of how one public servant has felt the pressure.

He is Lance deHaven-Smith, a widely published and quoted (and tenured) professor of public administration at Florida State University. A year ago, he voluntarily quit his half-time assignment as associate director of the Florida Institute of Government here. The institute's staff isn't tenured and it is uniquely budget-sensitive.

"You and the university have always defended my right to speak freely to journalists, and I have no doubt that you would continue to do so," he wrote to the director. "But my remarks are sometimes critical of, or taken to be critical of officials whose policies I am asked to evaluate or explain, and I am afraid that the institute, in particular, will be seen as endorsing my views so long as I remain in my present administrative position."

Freed of that fear, DeHaven-Smith has been speaking out forcefully. In an Aug. 27 guest column, he said Florida Republicans were shoring up a tenuous hold on power by using "the state government itself against the Florida electorate."

"One must assume that this is why Florida Republicans have become so aggressive in punishing their critics, insisting on total loyalty from professional staff, drastically reducing civil service protections, and interjecting politics into the administration of Florida's public universities," he wrote. "It also explains their actions in blocking and disrupting the proper execution of Florida election laws in the disputed 2000 presidential election."

DeHaven-Smith followed on Sept. 2 with a guest column saying that Al Gore got the most votes in Florida two years ago and would have been declared the winner if the state had been allowed to recount all uncounted ballots.

Three days later, he got word that he was out as a luncheon speaker for a state library conference to be held in Tallahassee this week. In an e-mail, Victoria Pendleton of the Bureau of Library Development explained that "preparing for our transition" to the governor's office "is making folks sensitive to anything which may be construed as inappropriate. This has had an impact on the Conference agenda . . ."

In a telephone interview, Pendleton insisted that the situation was not as it sounded. DeHaven-Smith was dropped only because the focus of the conference had changed. His appearance had been "tentative" from the start. She hadn't even seen his Sept. 2 op-ed piece and no one had mentioned it to her. The decision was hers alone.

She conceded, however, that her Sept. 5 e-mail was "a poor choice of words . . ."

Yes, indeed, people do have to watch what they say in Tallahassee these days.

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