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Defending his black staffers, Bush cries

Gov. Jeb Bush tells a black Baptist group how some of his aides endure harsh criticism from other African-Americans.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush stood before a sea of African-American faces Friday and wept.

photo
[AP photo]
"I'm not crying for me," Gov. Jeb Bush told a black staffer on Friday. "I'm crying for you ... and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice" to work for me.
The tears started when he described to members of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education the criticism some of his black staffers endure because they work for him.

His voice cracked when he introduced Leslie Steele, an assistant in his communications office.

"Leslie has to take grief for me, not because of the truth, but because of perceptions," he said.

Steele went to the podium and handed the governor a tissue to dry his eyes. "I'm not crying for me," Bush told Steele. "I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice."

Bush's support among blacks has dropped dramatically since he announced his One Florida program to replace affirmative action in late 1999. In Bush's view, he is battling misperceptions that the program hasn't helped minorities.

Bush received a standing ovation when introduced to the group's southern regional conference and again when he finished speaking. Some in the group support Bush's voucher program that uses tax dollars to send children from failing public schools to private and religious schools.

"I have not in all my years seen a more responsible governor," said Randolph Bracy, a Baptist pastor from Orlando.

"Our people listen to us because they feel we have their best interests at heart," Bracy said. And he will tell his flock that Bush is a man they can trust, Bracy added.

"I sense that you really care," he told the governor.

After Bush's speech, Steele described an encounter she had during the height of the One Florida controversy.

"My son used to go to a predominantly African-American school and he was ridiculed by his teacher because his mother worked for the governor," Steele said. She has shared this example and others with the governor because he is not just her boss, but her friend, Steele said.

"He's the most inclusive governor in history and I'm very proud to work for him," the 32-year-old single mother said.

Critics say it is too early to tell whether Bush's efforts at minority outreach will have a lasting affect.

He devoted much of his speech before the Baptist education group going over the gains he says minorities have made since he was elected, including:

A roughly 20 percent increase statewide in minority judge appointments.

A 12 percent increase in minority enrollment at the state's universities.

Increased funding for urban renewal and historically black colleges.

An increase of 88 percent in minority and female hires for contracts by agencies that report to the governor.

"We replaced a system that put a cap on people's dreams and aspirations" through quotas, Bush said.

Bush's speech at the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church came less than a week after a poll published in the St. Petersburg Times showed his job-approval rating among African-Americans, a group he has aggressively courted, has dropped to 8 percent. The poll also reflected suspicions that he helped engineer his brother's ascent to the White House.

Bush has acknowledged that his gains among black voters have disappeared, but he said too many black Floridians aren't familiar with his record of accomplishments.

"The perception is that somehow I'm insensitive to the aspirations of African-Americans, which is false," he said later Friday.

"Over time, if people see what's in my heart and people see the results, I think their fear and anger will subside."

- Times staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Associated Press.

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