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Connerly in clear as Democrats kick Bush


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2000

Freight trains, hurtling past each other.

Thousands of people marched on Tallahassee on Tuesday. Their stated purpose was to oppose Gov. Jeb Bush's program to change affirmative action in Florida.

They carried signs that said, "Jeb Crow" and "Bush League" and "Bush Whack."

One speaker warned, "This is the first step toward resegregation." To hear others tell it, Bush wants to go back to separate drinking fountains.

It is interesting that a black man, Ward Connerly of California, is actually trying to wipe out affirmative action altogether in Florida with a constitutional amendment, but Bush with a smaller plan is getting most of the heat.

This is partly Bush's fault. He made himself the better emotional target by mishandling the impromptu sit-in by two black lawmakers in his office. Bush let his personal anger lead to closed doors, armed guards and his now-famous command to "kick their asses out" (even though he said later that he was talking about the media).

Even though Bush thinks he tried, he did not include enough black lawmakers in the drafting of his plan in the first place. He stuck mostly to those most likely to agree with him, with the notable exception of Sen. Daryl Jones. Even so, Jones abandoned Bush as soon as the water got hot.

But notice that none of these reasons for Bush becoming the main target involves the merits of his plan.

Bush would replace affirmative action in university admissions by admitting the top 20 percent of each high school's seniors -- which he says would increase minority enrollment.

He would eliminate the affirmative-action quotas in state hiring and state spending. The latter is now a ridiculously small percentage of state spending. Again, Bush says his plan might actually increase minority participation.

Yet opposition is vocal and rising. There are two reasons.

The first reason is truly based on the merits. By abandoning official affirmative action requirements, Bush is basically saying: Hey, trust me. That is a government of men and not laws, and reasonable people can be skeptical.

But the second reason for the opposition to Bush's plan is flat-out politics. At long last, the Democrats see that they have a club with which to hit Bush. Democrats, both black and white, are as energized as they have been in years.

Why should the Democratic leaders reach a compromise with Bush, or even have reasonable dialogue with him, and calm down their angry supporters? (If you answer, "Because it would be the right and productive thing to do," then you obviously are not a politician.)

After all, why did most of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus refuse to see Bush when he invited them to the Governor's Mansion last month? They were too busy elsewhere, complaining to their supporters about how the governor won't talk to them.

The truth is they are mostly Democrats; he is a Republican. Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly and Democrats gotta kick Bush. They would rather kick Bush, in fact, and lose everything to Connerly in November, than try to find a middle ground to negate Connerly.

It reminds me of welfare reform in Congress. Bill Clinton saw it was going to pass. So he got in front of the train and said, "We're gonna pass it MY way." And because of that, the Republicans had to give him things like job training, and day care.

Clinton softened the blow -- and got called a traitor by liberal Democrats for making a deal at all. Likewise, any Democrat who now tries to soften Connerly's blow will suffer the same fate.

If Connerly makes the ballot, his petitions will pass. Tuesday's demonstration, which capitalized on the deep feelings of good men and women from across the state and nation, will have benefited no one, except, of course, the Democratic Party.

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