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Connerly's race debate leaves no winners

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000

Who won?

With Ward Connerly dropping his campaign for a constitutional amendment that would end affirmative action in Florida, who came out a winner in the months-long debate?

Meek has had a front-row seat. The state senator from Miami and the son of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek led the overnight sit-in inside the governor's suite that prompted Gov. Jeb Bush to blurt, "throw their asses out." Whether Bush was referring to Meek and another African-American legislator, Tony Hill of Jacksonville, or to reporters who were with them remains unclear.

Meek also helped lead the march on Tallahassee that drew 11,000 protesters of Bush's One Florida plan on the opening day of the legislative session.

And Meek was the lawmaker who could not carry through on his vow to create havoc during the session by bringing up affirmative action at every opportunity.

Several days after the birthday party, Meek still struggled last week to name any winners in a debate that now appears to be dying as fast as our water-starved lawns.

"It doesn't look like there are any winners here," he said. "But it's going to cost everybody."

An hour later, Meek called back.

Upon further reflection, he decided Bush had won a minor victory because the One Florida initiative will continue without pressure to go further from Connerly. And Meek concluded Connerly won a little because Bush's effort to end race and gender as a factor in university admissions and state contracting advances the Californian's argument that all affirmative action should be scrapped.

That is a generous scorecard.

Nobody looks like a winner in an avoidable debate over race that further divided Floridians and left many African-Americans more isolated than before.

Before Connerly showed up, nobody was clamoring to end affirmative action in Florida. Black and white voters and politicians weren't drawing lines in the sand. In fact, Bush was the first Republican candidate in memory to campaign aggressively in black neighborhoods and won an unprecedented 14 percent of the black vote in 1998.

Now look at the wreckage.

For the governor, no amount of spin can erase the memories of a sit-in and an enormous protest march. His poll numbers have fallen, and the trust he had built among black voters has been damaged. Now the state has earmarked $300,000 to defend the new university admissions policy in court.

Bush's political calculations also are suspect.

He and his advisers have acknowledged his One Florida initiative was largely aimed at driving Connerly out of Florida and his controversial amendment off the November ballot.

But Bush didn't force Connerly to give up. The Florida Supreme Court did that by running out the clock as it ponders whether Connerly's amendments meet the required legal tests.

"Rather than making me go away," Connerly said, "he gave it a life and a visibility it may not have achieved."

It remains a safe bet that the court will reject Connerly's most far-reaching amendment by concluding that more than one subject is involved. It is a closer call on the amendments that separately address university admissions, government contracting and hiring. Attorney General Bob Butterworth argued that they also fail to meet the test.

What is curious is Connerly's timing.

He announced he was giving up on the first business day after the legislative session ended with lawmakers approving a watered-down version of One Florida. He could have waited until the court ruled if he has all of the financial pledges lined up as he claims. If he still ran out of time to gather the signatures, he could have blamed the court then.

Democrats have bought into a conspiracy theory. Many of them are convinced that Connerly and Bush acted in concert, with Connerly agreeing to disappear if Bush's One Florida passed through the Legislature. That takes the issue out of play for November, when it could have damaged the presidential campaign by Bush's older brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"I find it hard to believe there was no coordination," said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, who is overseeing the campaigns of House Democrats.

But coordination, direct or indirect, sounds far-fetched.

"The governor and Ward Connerly don't talk to each other," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said.

If Connerly and Bush lost, so have Democrats who believed the controversy would bring more black voters to the polls this fall. Frankel believes there is some "positive energy" in black neighborhoods that could help. But any effort to rally black voters against Republican legislative candidates will be offset to support from Bush and the GOP-led Legislature for a new law school for Florida A&M University.

Beyond this election, it gets fuzzier.

By the time Bush runs for re-election in 2002, some numbers will be in on the success of One Florida. Some version of Connerly's initiative may also be on the ballot. Democrats may even find someone credible to run against Bush.

"What we have," Meek said, "is a to be continued."

And no winners.

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