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Attorney general offers quieter One Florida view

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000


Bob Butterworth could rip into Jeb Bush and get people to listen.

With U.S. Sen. Bob Graham disconnected from state politics in Washington, the attorney general is Florida's most prominent statewide elected Democrat.

Butterworth supports affirmative action. He believes Ward Connerly's proposed constitutional amendment that would wipe out affirmative action does not meet the requirements to be placed on the ballot.

The attorney general also is the state chairman for Vice President Al Gore's campaign for president. Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, the other candidate for the Democratic nomination, criticized Bush last week for his efforts to replace race-based contracting and university admissions policies with the One Florida initiative.

If Butterworth held a news conference to attack the Republican governor for trying to end affirmative action, you can bet it would be carried by every television station and newspaper in the state.

Butterworth, who has been in government and politics longer than Bush has lived in Florida, has taken a different approach. While two black legislators received national attention for their sit-in at the Capitol, the attorney general has been relatively quiet.

But he is still candid.

As we waited last week for Gore to arrive at the Fort Lauderdale Jet Center, Butterworth told me he does not question Bush's motives.

"If I thought the governor was doing this for the wrong reason ... but I don't think he is," the attorney general said. "I don't think he wants to go back to 1960."

Butterworth, 57, remembers 1960. That is the year he graduated from a segregated high school in Broward County.

Millions of other Floridians also recall what life was like before affirmative action, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Butterworth said those personal experiences are the reason there is such a backlash against Bush and the way the governor unveiled his proposal without public input.

"To say "trust me,' people would like to, but it's very difficult to do that," he said. "The fault of the governor was not having people who have lived through this tell him why this is not the time to do this or argue how to do it.

"His actual program might be very good. But he seems to be saying, "I'll listen to you, but I'm not going to change my plan.' "

There are some signals Bush might be getting the message.

As Butterworth talked in Fort Lauderdale, about 1,000 Florida A&M students gathered in the Capitol in Tallahassee to protest Bush's proposal. The governor wants to end race-based admissions and offers several new initiatives, including guaranteeing the top 20 percent of each high school graduating class a spot in a state university.

By the end of the day, the students won several promises for improvements to the governor's initiative that are well-intended but not enough to resolve the controversy.

In another corner of the jet center in Fort Lauderdale, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch took a more partisan view of the embattled governor than Butterworth.

The Fort Lauderdale Democrat looked ahead to the November elections. He predicted Democrats, particularly African-Americans, will vote in greater numbers because of the affirmative-action controversy.

"You're talking about turnout," Deutsch said. "The first time people are going to be able to vote on Jeb Bush will be in November 2000."

Of course, the governor won't be on the ballot. But his older brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, will if he gets by John McCain and wins the Republican nomination for president.

A few months ago, the political spin was how much Jeb Bush would help his brother in Florida. Now it is whether he might hurt him.

Deutsch said the affirmative-action fight illustrates to voters how elections affect public policy. "There's more than rhetoric," he said, as he contended Bush's missteps have made it easier for Democrat Bill Nelson to win the U.S. Senate race. "There's reality, and elections have consequences."

Butterworth agreed that the affirmative-action fight has galvanized Democrats. But he looked beyond elections and at the message the battle is sending the rest of the state.

It is a different message than the one sent in late the '50s by Gov. LeRoy Collins, who steered the state on a moderate course through the beginning of the end of segregation as other southern states erupted in violence.

"I don't like seeing us on the front page of the national media," Butterworth said, "or have national candidates come in and make it look like, "What is Florida, this southern state, doing?' when Florida through LeRoy Collins really became the first southern state to change the way it was doing business."

So the Democrat with the biggest bully pulpit does not attack the Republican governor. Part of that is tactical, of course. Butterworth sits on the Cabinet, which will have a say on parts of Bush's proposal. Instead of isolating himself with partisan shots, he wants to be able to work with the governor to revise the proposals.

In the meantime, Butterworth looks for signs of compromise. He watches with interest as state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, talks of revisions and buying time after listening to complaints from hundreds of Floridians.

"I want to see everybody get back together," Butterworth said. "We don't need this war for the next 10 months. But the thing to do is to listen and to review."

Good advice from an old hand.

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