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Bradley opposes Florida's affirmative action overhaul

With both Democratic candidates in the bay area this week, the topic is expected to be a hot one.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2000


Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley said Sunday he will "strongly oppose" Gov. Jeb Bush's bid to overhaul affirmative action and expects to raise the issue today in Tampa.

"I think it is the wrong way to go," Bradley said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "Affirmative action is what we do in a country where there is still some discrimination."

The former New Jersey senator also criticized Bush for attempting to end race-based preferences in state contracting and university admissions without adequate input from Floridians. Bush agreed to public hearings only after two African-American legislators staged a sit-in last month inside the state Capitol.

"The fact that he was going to do it without any public hearings showed an insensitivity to our minority community and our common ideals," said Bradley, who telephoned state Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami and state Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville shortly after their sit-in to lend his support. "With the hearings, you are going to see more and more problems. I would hope good sense would prevail and the governor would not try to ram this through."

Bush's One Florida initiative and the subsequent backlash already have received national attention and are expected to reverberate through the race for president this week as both Democratic candidates campaign in Florida.

Bradley will hold a town meeting at 5:45 p.m. today at the Italian Club, 1731 E Seventh Ave., in Ybor City. The event is open to the public.

On Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore will campaign in South Florida condominiums filled with elderly, loyal Democrats before flying to Tampa to hold his own town meeting. The time and place of the Tampa event have not been released, but it will be invitation-only.

Both Democrats are turning their attention now to larger states such as Florida, which holds its primary March 14.

Like Bradley, Gore also is a defender of affirmative action and may raise the issue this week.

Bush defends One Florida as a way to improve opportunities for minorities by replacing affirmative action programs. It would end race-based preferences in state contracting and university admissions while enacting initiatives aimed at promoting diversity. For example, it would guarantee university admission to any high school senior in the top 20 percent of the graduating class.

"Governor Bush's One Florida plan is built on his commitment to enhance opportunities for minorities in the areas of state contracting as well as improve the number of minority students in our state university system," Liz Hirst, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Sunday.

Hirst said Bush sought input from black constituents, legislators and others before proposing One Florida. "There has been misunderstanding about the development of the plan from the beginning," she said.

Bradley, who counts racial unity as one of his top campaign issues, said he views affirmative action as "common sense. It is not special treatment." He said two generations of African-Americans have received college educations because of affirmative action policies that ensured admissions officers looked at a wide pool of talent.

"That doesn't mean they weren't talented -- many of them had higher SAT scores than I did," said Bradley, a former basketball star who attended Princeton University and was a Rhodes scholar. "If universities can recruit a trumpet player and a basketball player and somebody from Texas and somebody from South Carolina, they ought to be able to recruit somebody because of diversity."

Opinion polls in Florida have indicated that most voters oppose affirmative action. But most black voters support the policies and are Democrats. Emphasizing his commitment to affirmative action would be one strategy for Bradley to attract more attention from those voters.

Polls show most black voters favor Gore over Bradley, and the former New Jersey senator acknowledges he has to do a better job of selling his proposals to Democrats.

While exit polls from last week's New Hampshire primary show Bradley was favored by most independent voters, six of 10 Democrats voted for Gore. That's bad news for Bradley in states such as Florida, where only Democrats can vote in the primary.

Bradley said his top proposals, such as providing universal access to health insurance and eliminating child poverty, are better than Gore's less ambitious initiatives for the Democrats' core constituency of low- and middle-income voters.

Florida once appeared to be out of the picture because of the compressed primary season. Its March 14 election comes a week after primaries in more than a dozen states, including such mega-states as California, New York and Ohio.

Instead, Florida may be one of the final battlegrounds.

Despite losing the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary to Gore, Bradley is determined to remain in the race. About a half-dozen Bradley campaign staffers are being positioned in Broward County, the state's biggest Democratic stronghold.

Gore expects to have seven campaign staffers in Florida by the end of the week and has locked up most party activists and prominent politicians.

Aside from Attorney General Bob Butterworth, his state chairman, the vice president includes among his supporters nearly all Democratic county chairmen, seven of eight Florida Democrats in the U.S. House, most prominent Democrats in the Legislature, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, the heads of the two largest teacher unions and the president of the Florida AFL-CIO.

While Bradley has campaigned in the state a handful of times, Gore has made roughly 40 visits to Florida since the Clinton administration took office in 1993.

"Florida knows Al Gore a lot better than it knows Bill Bradley," said Karl Koch of Tampa, chairman of the Floridians For Gore executive committee and director of Clinton's state re-election campaign in 1996.

In that election, Clinton became the first Democratic candidate for president in 20 years to win Florida. But with Bush in the Governor's Mansion, the state long has been considered to be an easy win in 2000 for the governor's older brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

However, a Florida Voter poll taken late last month showed Bush and Gore in a statistical tie in the state.

"This is a very good state for Al Gore," Koch said. "It is a tough state, but it is a battle we're looking forward to."

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