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'I'm here because I care,' Jackson tells crowd

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published March 30, 2005


[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, kisses Mary Schindler, mother of Terri Schiavo, during a visit at Hospice House Woodside on Tuesday. Schiavo's parents have fought with Schiavo's husband, Michael, about the way money from a 1992 settlement has been spent.

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'I'm here because I care,' Jackson tells crowd

PINELLAS PARK - Police turned away the white limousine a few blocks before it reached the Hospice House Woodside entrance Tuesday. Only the media, people with hospice business or those who work nearby are allowed to drive cars in.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson would have to hoof it.

The civil rights leader from Chicago had received a call Monday from Mary Schindler, inviting him to Florida in a last-ditch attempt to keep her daughter, Terri Schiavo, alive.

"I'm here because I care. I'm here because I'm passionate about this," Jackson told a clutch of reporters. "It is so cold not to even allow ice cubes for her parched lips. We can do better than that."

Schiavo, whose end-of-life travails have attracted international attention, has gone without food or water for 12 days since her feeding tube was removed under court order. A daily protest vigil outside the hospice has been grist for round-the-clock news coverage. Jackson's star power temporarily energized the familiar scene.

"Pray with us, pray with us, Rev. Jackson!" shouted protesters. Jackson approached, extended his arms, bowed his head and murmured soft words. Three or four hands clutched each of his arms.

Upon arrival Jackson ducked inside a gift shop, across 102nd Avenue N from the hospice, which serves as unofficial headquarters for Schiavo's parents and siblings. Randall Terry, who works with the Schindler family, said Jackson had hoped to visit Terri, but was denied permission by her husband's attorney, George Felos.

Instead, Jackson spent about 90 minutes in the gift shop, praying with the family and telephoning Florida senators, trying to persuade them to resurrect a defunct bill intended to keep her alive. Reports from Tallahassee indicated his efforts met with little success.

About 11:20 a.m., Jackson emerged and made the rounds of the makeshift tents, where local television stations, networks and cable shows beam out their signals.

Withholding life support might be appropriate for a cancer victim, hooked to a machine, Jackson said. "But without food and water for 12 days, and she's still alive? It's starvation to death. It's dehydration to death," he said. "It's inhumane."

Twice a Democratic presidential candidate, Jackson was asked why he aligned with people like Randall Terry, who earned political stripes by encouraging people to blockade abortion clinic doors.

"This is where blacks and whites find common ground. Conservatives and liberals," Jackson said. "We watch her struggle. We see her on TV. She is now part of our lives. We are all potentially Terris."

Jackson tried to broaden his message, saying Schiavo is a symbol that many people are starving, that the country needs better health care and that "nobody should be left behind."

Mary Schindler, who frequently clasped Jackson's arm or hand, thanked him for his support and prayers.

"It was wonderful," she said. "I appeal to the Florida Senate to please, please pass this new bill."

But Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, told Jackson he wouldn't get involved. "He's a pastor, and I'm a Christian, too," Siplin said. "I believe in miracles. But if the Lord wanted to do something, he would do it."

Jackson also talked to Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, the Senate minority leader. "We've voted on it," Miller said. "The issue is out of the hands of the Legislature. We have to move on."

A quick reconsideration of the Senate vote would require 27 of the 40 members. No one thought that would be possible in a chamber where the measure failed 21-18 less than a week ago.

"Right now, even if somebody changes their position, I would say it's not enough to win the vote," said Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, the legislation's sponsor.

Gov. Jeb Bush was skeptical of Jackson's efforts. The Legislature "would have to start all over again and there wouldn't be time for that," Bush said.

These political nuances were lost on protesters at the hospice. For four hours, they had a hero.

"Jesse for president! Jesse for president!" someone yelled as Jackson walked back to his limo, with Mary Schindler on one arm and Schiavo's sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, on the other.

"Tell the Bush brothers we voted them in and we'll vote them out if they don't protect our rights!" yelled someone else. One man rushed to Jackson and pressed a "pro-life" sticker in his hand and asked him to wear it. Jackson took one look, kept walking and curled the sticker up in his palm.

Times staff writers Carrie Johnson and Joni James contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 30, 2005, 01:04:14]


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