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Thousands protest One Florida

[AP photo]
Law enforcement officials estimated from 9,000-11,000 at the rally outside the state capitol.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Gov. Jeb Bush did not specifically mention the protest rally during his State of the State speech Tuesday but said he's "doing the right thing."

As Gov. Jeb Bush delivers his State of the State speech inside the Capitol, a crowd of some 11,000 rallies against his plan to reshape affirmative action.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- A raucous crowd estimated at 11,000 people climbed steep Apalachee Parkway to the steps of the old state Capitol Tuesday morning and delivered two clear messages to Gov. Jeb Bush:

"Race and gender matter" and "We will remember in November."

[AP photo]
State Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, joins hands in prayer Tuesday with other protesters. Meek's 25-hour sit-in at the governor's offices Jan. 18-19 helped galvanize opposition to Bush's One Florida plan.
Beneath a warm sun and a spotless blue sky, the predominantly black crowd gathered to protest Bush's One Florida plan to reshape affirmative action.

Many had traveled overnight on buses, from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa Bay and smaller places in between. Some came from out of state. Others drove themselves or walked from nearby neighborhoods.

Just as marchers reached the oaks that shelter the old Capitol, Bush was rising to a rostrum inside the towering new Capitol next door to deliver his State of the State address to open the 2000 Legislature. Bush spoke for 32 minutes before fewer than 160 lawmakers in the House chamber, promising less government, less taxes and greater diversity.

In his speech, Bush said he is "doing the right thing" with a plan that has already increased minority enrollment at Florida State University by 18 percent over last year without using race as a factor.

"The plan is working," Bush insisted. "Fairness and diversity are achieved without pitting one group against another. There is a new energy for minority outreach that is unprecedented in state government."

The governor never mentioned the crowd outside. Asked about it as he left the House, Bush said he thinks the protesters someday will realize that One Florida will help minorities.

"They are here because somehow they've been told we're taking a step back," he told reporters. "We are not."

He told legislators the fierce objections to his One Florida plan have reminded him of the "public and private price for taking a stand on principle."

When he proposed One Florida last fall, many thought his effort was designed to derail Californian Ward Connerly's much broader initiative that would ban affirmative action. Unlike Connerly's approach, Bush would replace race and gender preferences with a system of outreach in university admissions, hiring and state contracting.

"The vast majority of Floridians favor the elimination of all affirmative action programs," Bush said. "It would have been politically expedient to simply let these programs be dismantled, with nothing to replace them."

Outside the Capitol, though, distrust of the Republican governor prevailed among the protesters.

Local law enforcement authorities estimated between 9,000 and 11,000 people listened, chanted and cheered as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, Martin Luther King III and other national and state civil-rights leaders spent almost four hours urging them to continue pressuring Bush until he backs away from One Florida.

"We're going to shout until the walls of One Florida come on down," Bishop Victor T. Curry, president of the Miami-Dade County NAACP, shouted into the microphone as protesters screamed and applauded.

But on the same day that voters in many other states went to the polls in the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, Curry and nearly every speaker made clear the target was broader than One Florida. Their resentment extended to Bush's educational reforms and to his entire family, particularly his brother, Texas governor and Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush.

Jackson derided the Texas governor for not opposing the flying of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state capitol and for not speaking out against intolerance at conservative Bob Jones University.

"The moral," he told the crowd, "is stay out of the Bushes."

Jackson and others repeated a phrase President Clinton made popular about affirmative action: "Mend it, don't end it."

Jackson credited the push for gender equity in college athletics for the victory last year of the U.S. women's soccer team over China. Affirmative action, he said, is a "majority issue, not a minority issue," one that benefits women most.

"Don't let them make this a black and white issue. That's a trick," he said, before adding one of his trademark verses: "This is not about black and white, it's about wrong and right."

The march occurred 35 years to the day after civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., were beaten while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It grew out of reaction to an earlier protest that also used tactics from the civil rights movement.

Miami Sen. Kendrick Meek and Jacksonville Rep. Tony Hill held a 25-hour sit-in the governor's offices Jan. 18-19. Bush's angry reaction to the situation helped galvanize his opponents.

Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze announced to the crowd that Capitol police were estimating the crowd had reached nearly 50,000. That's far more than the figure police released.

Told of the police estimates, Obi Nweze said, "I'm not going to allow anyone to dampen what happened today."

Tuesday, many marchers waved signs with bitter messages, including "Jeb Crow" and "Remember, Jeb and George come from the same Bush." A small biplane circled several times, towing a sign: "God Bless Jeb." There were no arrests, though 40 or so people were treated for heat-related illness.

"There ain't much shade on the parkway," said Tallahassee police spokesman Kevin Bradshaw.

There was a little more near the old Capitol, where the crowd crushed petunia beds and leaned against Civil War memorials.

Young faces were common, from babies in strollers to college students. With about 90 fellow seniors from Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Monique Wright skipped class for the march.

"As seniors, this affects us more than anyone," Wright, 17, said as she pulled the leash of her black cocker spaniel, Taylor, up the hill to the Capitol.

Wright doubted Bush would listen to her classmates' chants of "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!"

But their voices still were important to serve as a "wake-up call for black people," Wright said. "This is just to let (Bush) know that we are his boss. He is not our boss."

Laborers International local 517, which draws members from Tampa and St. Petersburg, bused in more than 400 construction and maintenance workers.

"This has really fired up our membership," said local president Joe O'Donnell, 51.

A member of the state university system Board of Regents, Steve Uhlfelder, watched from a distance. Regents recently voted to adopt part of One Florida that would replace race-and gender-based admissions with other programs Bush says will increase diversity.

"People aren't listening," Uhlfelder said of the crowd. "It's an emotional issue -- it's hard for people to understand the plan. There's a lack of trust, but the proof will be in the outcome."

After the march, at a late afternoon news conference at the Governor's Mansion, Bush put a positive spin on the day. "What they want their governor to be focused on is to make sure we are vigilant in the fight against discrimination," he said, summarizing his interpretation of the speeches.

He defended One Florida and said he received hundreds of supportive phone calls Tuesday. "A majority of Floridians do support us on this."

The governor's own pollster came to that conclusion three weeks ago, finding that 51 percent of those polled approve of One Florida.

Today, Bush will meet with state NAACP leaders.

Asked about personal attacks against him, the governor said: "It doesn't bother me a bit. I know what I'm doing is right. For the people who don't believe it's appropriate to implement our strategy -- at the end, when they see there's more opportunities being given to African-Americans and Hispanics, little by little, they'll give me the benefit of the doubt for standing on principle."

- Times staff writers Julie Hauserman, Lucy Morgan and Jo Becker and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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