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    A Times Editorial

    McBride for governor

    Bill McBride is the candidate best suited to forge the broad alliances needed to deal responsibly with the challenges facing Florida.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 20, 2002

    Even allowing for the usual campaign hyperbole, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and his Democratic challenger, Bill McBride , paint starkly different pictures of the state of our state.

    According to Bush, things are rosy. The state's budget is fundamentally sound. Our schools and social services are being adequately funded. Our students are improving at a record pace, thanks to his FCAT school grading system. Our state's economy is the envy of the nation -- relatively speaking -- and our environment has never been better protected.

    McBride thinks our public schools and universities need new priorities and new funds. He sees teachers leaving for higher-paying jobs in Georgia and Alabama. He sees overcrowded schools and classrooms, along with forced cutbacks in summer school and other programs. He sees a state economy increasingly dependent on unskilled workers in low-paying jobs, with Florida losing out to other states in the South in the competition to establish new-economy hubs. He sees the state's environment and quality of life threatened more than ever by unmanaged sprawl.

    Bush's embrace of the status quo is more than the typical defensiveness of an incumbent governor. It is an ideological necessity. Only by perpetuating the view that Florida has no significant social or fiscal problems can Bush justify his doctrinaire opposition even to modest reforms aimed at eliminating the most unfair exemptions to the sales tax.

    That inflexibility doesn't just put Bush at odds with many of the Democrats and independents he promised to cooperate with four years ago. It has caused him to clash with Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee, many of whom say publicly (and most of whom acknowledge privately) that the state's budgetary crisis will require them to find new revenue just to continue funding basic services. It conflicts with Republican school board members and administrators around the state who have been alienated by a flawed school grading system and accumulating state mandates established by a governor who had promised local control. It puts him at odds with local Republican voters in several Florida communities who in recent months have chosen to support local tax initiatives to compensate for inadequate state support of schools.

    Bush's intelligence and energy are unquestioned, as is the sincerity of his commitment to improving Florida's systems of education and social services. However, the governor acknowledges that he is sometimes impatient to bring about change. He also can be impatient with those who support his goals but disagree with some of his methods.

    In style, Bush has governed more like the brash, young ideologue who first ran for governor (and lost) eight years ago. Back then, Bush was a self-described "gladiator for change" with revolutionary ideas for reversing the "creeping collectivism" of state government. He and his Republican running-mate, conservative firebrand Tom Feeney, offered "big" ideas, such as abolishing the state Department of Education, launching the nation's most ambitious program of private-school vouchers and privatizing many traditional government services.

    Four years ago, chastened by his 1994 defeat at the hands of then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, Bush transformed his image, running a campaign of "inclusion rather than exclusion, of offering hope rather than dividing." As governor, however, he too often has engaged in unnecessary ideological conflicts, even with members of his own party. Those conflicts came to a head during this year's legislative session, when Bush and his allies in the House (led by Speaker Feeney) waged a nasty fight with the state Senate's Republican leadership over several issues, most notably the Senate's attempt to begin addressing the state's unfair and inadequate tax system.

    Although Bush is a complex man in charge of a complex state, it seems clear that he generally has governed in a manner that is more doctrinaire and less inclusive than the image he crafted as a candidate four years ago. During that campaign, he gave no hint of plans to dismantle the Board of Regents and reorganize the state university system under the control of political allies with no expertise in higher education. He didn't talk of ploys to compromise the independence of the state's judiciary. He downplayed his plans for school vouchers and privatization of state services. But as governor, he has aggressively put the authority of his office behind all of those divisive efforts.

    Some of the criticism of Bush has been exaggerated or unfair. His One Florida initiative hasn't been the disaster his critics claim. The evidence shows that minorities have fared relatively well under One Florida's alternative to race-based policies in university admissions and government contracts. And although the governor bears ultimate responsibility for any scandals and tragedies that occur on his watch at the Department of Children and Families, he appears to have made a serious effort from the start to improve the mess he inherited there.

    It's also true that many other states have budget crises at least as severe as the $1-billion-plus revenue shortfall facing Florida, but several other governors have responded to their problems more responsibly than Bush has so far. More and more members of his own party acknowledge the need to look for equitable ways to expand the state's tax base, but they have been waiting for the governor to show leadership -- or at least to stop being so aggressively obstructionist.

    Unlike Bush, McBride is a political novice, and his inexperience sometimes shows in his incomplete or injudicious public comments. However, McBride is as experienced and accomplished as any Floridian in providing progressive civic leadership.

    As managing partner of Holland & Knight, which he built into the nation's fifth-largest law firm, McBride expanded the firm's commitment to pro bono work and other charitable activity.His record of civic leadership gives a strong indication of the consensus-building skills he would bring to the governor's office. For example, during his tenure as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, McBride joined forces with former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez to lead a broad community effort to rescue Tampa General Hospital, one of this community's greatest assets. McBride is the candidate best suited to forge the broad alliances required to deal responsibly with the challenges facing Florida.

    Bush is a good bet to win re-election. He has a huge advantage in campaign money and name recognition, and millions still know him primarily through the moderate public image he has crafted in recent years. McBride is a known quantity in Tampa Bay, where he and his wife, Alex Sink, former president of Bank of America of Florida, have played leadership roles in virtually every important community initiative in recent years. Whether he has the time and money and courage to present a full picture of himself to the rest of the state is in question. There is still time for him to be more specific about where he would find the money to finance his proposals.

    Yet McBride is the gubernatorial candidate who paints the brighter picture of what Florida can become over the next four years and beyond. Those who are satisfied with Florida's dismal ranking on most social, economic and educational measures, even compared with other Southern states with far fewer natural assets, will have no interest in McBride's message. But those looking for a leader who can bring Floridians together in a unified effort to improve our quality of life have a choice on Election Day. The Times recommends Bill McBride for governor.

    Opportunity to reply

    The Times offers candidates not recommended by its Editorial Board an opportunity to reply. A reply in the governor's race should be sent in no later than 5 p.m. Wednesday to: Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. By e-mail: (no attachments, please). By fax: (727) 893-8675; Replies are limited to 250 words.

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