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Polite but persistent, protesters fill Tallahassee

By LUCY MORGAN and CARRIE JOHNSON
Published March 24, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Phones were ringing off the hook and sign-carrying protesters were everywhere Wednesday as Gov. Jeb Bush and legislators tried to maneuver around a court order and prolong Terri Schiavo's live.

Protesters were on their knees begging the Senate to pass a bill they hoped would keep her alive.

Handwritten signs declared: "We are begging for Terri's life." Others were more stark, like one that said "We don't starve dogs. We don't starve prisoners. Why are we starving Terri?"

The House already passed a bill the protesters supported, so all the pressure was on the Senate.

Most of the protesters were polite but persistent as they attempted to talk to any passing senator.

But several senators expressed fear for their own safety because of telephoned death threats. Some lawmakers asked for police protection as they moved between offices.

Sen. Fredericka Wilson, D-Miami, denounced the death threats from the Senate floor.

"Today I am afraid," Wilson said. "I am asking the people who have threatened me to stop. I don't appreciate what you are doing to me. We're talking about the sanctity of life and you are threatening my life."

Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, said his staff quit answering his constantly ringing office telephones because of threats. He called home to warn family members not to open any suspicious packages and asked the staff at his mother's nursing home to be on guard.

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, traded Bible verses with a protester urging her to support the bill.

"Do you believe in the Holy Bible?" Bullard asked Tallahassee real estate broker Don Wesolowski, who has spent the past three weeks lobbying legislators.

Wesolowski said he did.

"Do you know the story about Lazarus? Do you have that much faith? Do you believe that if God wants Terri to live, she will?" Bullard asked.

"But God works through people," Wesolowski said.

"This is what concerns me, you are using the Scripture to justify what you are doing," Bullard said.

Bullard joined the narrow majority that rejected the bill.

Security was beefed up all over the Capitol, but there were no serious incidents and no arrests.

The fourth-floor lobby between the House and Senate, normally filled with business lobbyists when the House or Senate is in session, was so empty a cannon would not have hit anyone. Lobbyists rarely take sides on social issues.

Marion Hammer of the National Rifle Association was among a handful of lobbyists who stood outside the Senate watching the debate. But Hammer was actually waiting for the Senate to take up a bill that makes it easier for Floridians to shoot an attacker in self defense.

"This debate overshadows everything we are doing," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, after ducking into someone else's office to avoid protesters trying to buttonhole him in a Senate hallway. "We are going through the motions of having committee meetings, but there isn't five minutes that goes by without some mention of Terri Schiavo."

Minutes after the Senate vote, protesters who had waited through the day crowded into the governor's office, saying they planned to remain there until Gov. Jeb Bush took some action to prevent Schiavo's impending death.

The group left peacefully when the governor's office closed for the day, but vowed to keep up the pressure.

Bobby Schindler stood at the rear of the Senate's west gallery as the vote flashed on an electric screen: 18-21.

Schindler sighed heavily, then stepped outside the gallery to call his parents in Pinellas Park.

"It's just another setback," he said. "We're going to keep pushing forward and not give up hope and keep trying to find a way to save my sister."

Schindler spent most of the morning going door to door in the Senate trying to get votes. A gaggle of reporters trailed behind him.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 24, 2005, 01:21:06]


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