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Civil rights panel issues criticism of Bush's plan
By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000
WASHINGTON -- The Democrat-dominated U.S. Civil Rights Commission Tuesday issued what critics said was a politically motivated report condemning Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's policy eliminating race-based preferences in state university admissions.
"Florida should keep affirmative action unless forced to abandon it," said the 10-page report, which was adopted by the commission by a vote of 6-2. All the commission's Democrats voted with the majority; the two non-Democrats voted against it.
The commission majority criticized Florida's Republican governor for abandoning affirmative action, even though he was not under any court order to do so. Unlike Florida, California and Texas acted in response to legal action and other outside forces.
Though the report sided with Democratic critics of the Florida plan, Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, a Democrat, said she could support it with improvements designed to give minority students more access to the state's top schools.
"This is not a scorched earth condemnation of what is being done," she said. ". . . Florida has an opportunity to fix it. . . . They may arrive at something that would work."
Justin Sayfie, a spokesman for Bush, criticized the panel for not contacting Florida officials.
"From our perspective, it's troubling that they issued this report and didn't make any attempt to contact anyone in the state university system or the Board of Regents," Sayfie said. "It appears that the commission decided to attack first and ask questions later."
Sayfie called it "the ultimate irony that the Civil Rights Commission is against a policy that is going to help more African-American and Hispanic high school seniors get a shot at higher education."
Commissioners Carl A. Anderson, a Republican, and Russell G. Redenbaugh, an independent, filed a dissenting report. They accused the commission majority of "politicizing" the discussion of policies adopted in Florida, Texas and California that would replace affirmative action with race-neutral university programs.
The two dissenters scolded Berry for forcing the commission to vote on the report without an open discussion. They noted Berry distributed the report and asked for a vote immediately by paper ballot late last week, even though the members are scheduled to hold a regular meeting on Friday.
Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., in a letter to Berry, suggested the report was issued quickly to influence an administrative hearing that was scheduled to begin in Florida last Friday and also "to launch a partisan attack on the policies of Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. George W. Bush."
Redenbaugh, in an interview, said he suspects Berry acted at the request of supporters of Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign. But Berry denied any political motives. She noted the majority report, although it finds fault with the Texas admissions plan, does not mention George W. Bush's name because he was not responsible for developing the system being used in his state.
Florida Gov. Bush had asked for an opportunity for Florida officials to explain the plan to members of the commission, but Berry rejected the offer. She insisted the commission did not spurn Bush's request for partisan reasons. "His name could have been Oliver Twist, as far as we're concerned," she said. "We didn't seek input from Gray Davis (a Democrat) in California either. We didn't seek input from whoever the governor of Texas is."
Instead of using race-based affirmative action preferences, Bush's One Florida plan guarantees that the top 20 percent of Florida high school students will be accepted to attenda state university. Berry said the plan does not provide enough remedial education for students from poor high schools, nor does it guarantee minority access to the premier universities in the state.
"The major problem with the percentage plans is their inattention to law schools, medical schools and other graduate and professional schools, where ending affirmative action is devastating," the commission said.
Statistics show that minority admissions in Texas are increasing under a similar plan that offers automatic admissions to the top 10 percent of high school graduates. But Berry said the gains are not sufficient because they were accompanied by an increase in the applicant pool. Therefore, she said, the percentage of minorities accepted actually decreased.