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Racial issues keep dogging Republicans

Gov. Jeb Bush remains a frequent target of criticism as the 2002 gubernatorial election approaches.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2001

Gov. Jeb Bush remains a frequent target of criticism as the 2002 gubernatorial election approaches.

Gov. Jeb Bush and other Florida Republicans, their modest inroads among black voters washed away, are on the defensive as they struggle to limit the damage before the 2002 elections.

Democrats are pounding away at Bush's overhaul of affirmative action and the presidential election recount last year that left thousands of black voters convinced that their ballots for Al Gore were improperly discarded. Both issues were highlighted at last weekend's Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Miami Beach, an unsubtle effort to encourage blacks to return to the polls in record numbers next year and vote against Bush.

But while the attacks by Florida Democrats are unusually well-choreographed, frustrated Republicans are uncharacteristically unfocused in their response.

The governor and his supporters vigorously defended his record on racial issues even as he missed opportunities last week to appoint more blacks to state boards. Many Republicans also expect Bush to continue to reach out to black voters as he campaigns for re-election. Yet they are starting to question the integrity of blacks and other Democrats who criticize the governor, acknowledging they have little to lose by such a confrontational strategy.

In the last week:

The Bush administration calculated that 20 percent of the governor's 139 appointees to the new boards of trustees for 11 universities and the state Board of Education are black. The percentage drops to 15 percent without the nine black trustees for historically black Florida A&M University. That percentage mirrors the percentage of black residents in Florida.

But there is just one black trustee on each of the boards of four growing universities in urban areas with a significant number of black residents: the University of South Florida, the University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic University and Florida International University. Bush appoints 12 of the trustees on each board.

"It hurts," Ann Porter, a USF graduate and former president of the Tampa chapter of the NAACP, told a St. Petersburg Times reporter this week.

But Watson Haynes, a black Pinellas County Republican, said it is impossible to evaluate Bush's appointments without knowing the race of all of the applicants.

"For me to state that the governor is insensitive, I can't do that," Haynes said.

In Washington, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, stepped up criticism of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's majority report. The report found that Harris and Bush were "grossly derelict" in their election duties and estimated that black voters were nine times more likely to have their votes rejected than white voters.

Harris and Foley defended Bush and contended the findings of the commission's Democratic majority were biased.

"We're tired of taking it in the gut," Foley said in an interview. "We don't want them to run off as Jesse Jackson did and others and allege these kinds of heinous activities."

In the June 25 edition of the conservative Weekly Standard, Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Republicans should "question the credibility" of African-American activists and Democrats who are criticizing Bush.

"For years, Republican consultants said, "Oh, let's not get into a confrontation with African-American leaders because that will just lead to more confrontation and mistrust," Cardenas said in the Weekly Standard. "Now, as 2000 shows, there's really nothing to lose by confronting them."

Cardenas said in an interview with the Times this week that he was misquoted. Stephen F. Hayes, a Weekly Standard staff writer who wrote the article, said the Cardenas quotes are accurate. "He said them," Hayes said, "and he was emphatic about them."

In an interview with the Times, Cardenas said he thinks Republicans did not get their message across to black voters last year. He pledged to respond to both blacks and whites who mislead voters about Bush's record.

"We need to challenge those who have misstated our positions on the issues," said Cardenas, who was criticized by Democrats last year for calling a voter registration drive by black legislators a "hate tour."

Three years ago, Bush and the state Republican Party went to unprecedented efforts to win over black voters. Bush campaigned heavily in black neighborhoods and won 14 percent of the black vote, twice what he won in a losing effort in 1994.

But the political atmosphere in Florida has changed since 1998. Bush has been the target of a sit-in inside the governor's office and a civil rights march on the state Capitol. At last weekend's Democratic fundraiser, a video repeated footage of Bush declaring during the sit-in, "Throw their a---- out."

Bush has said he was referring to reporters, not black legislators.

Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade and other Republicans say Bush has no chance next year of matching the number of black votes he won in his last election. Meanwhile, Democrats are determined to capitalize on the lingering anger in the black community over the demise of affirmative action and the presidential recount.

Cardenas and other Florida Republicans said there is no coordinated strategy to write off black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, or to attack Bush's critics.

Bush's supporters, both Republicans and Democrats, defend the governor's appointments to the university boards of trustees. They said Bush has been unfairly criticized for replacing affirmative action with his One Florida initiative in university admissions and public contracting, and for the voting problems uncovered during the presidential recount.

"I don't think there is a bad bone in the guy's body when it comes to racial issues," said Steve Uhlfelder, a lawyer and life-long Democrat who supported both Jeb Bush and President Bush and was appointed to the Florida State University board of trustees.

But Republicans acknowledge they are frustrated by the unending criticism of Bush and the GOP from black activists ranging from Jackson to U.S. Reps. Carrie Meek of Miami and Alcee Hastings of Miramar.

Even as Cardenas distances himself from his published remarks, Slade said it makes sense for Republicans to pointedly respond to African-American critics, whom he suggested are misleading black voters.

"You can't lose what you've already lost," he said of Republican support among black voters. "I don't see much risk in it at all."

More than nine of 10 black voters backed Al Gore over George W. Bush last year.

Anger over the presidential recount is directed at the governor. In February, a Times poll found Jeb Bush had an 8 percent approval rating among black Florida voters.

"We need to call into question the African-American leaders and what they're saying," Cardenas told the Weekly Standard. "If we don't do that, (voters are) going to take the Democrats' and the African-American leadership's word for it. The only way we break that cycle is to call into question the credibility of those who are parlaying that message."

Cardenas said that quote also is inaccurate.

"It's a Republican versus Democrat thing," he told the Times. "It's not taking on the African-American community."

Regardless of how it is characterized, Democrats predicted that strategy would not win Republicans any votes in black neighborhoods next year.

"It doesn't have a prayer of working," said state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, a Democrat who is the only black candidate for governor. "We just try to tell it the way we see it and try to tell the truth."

Hastings, one of three blacks in Florida's congressional delegation, said he believes the Republican strategy is more subtle. "They will not get Jeb Bush to come out in direct open war with the black community," he said.

Instead, Hastings said, Republicans who blast their Democratic critics are signaling to white male voters that their natural home should be the GOP.

"I think the Republicans have very carefully and skillfully nearly marginalized the Democratic Party by suggesting if you are a Democrat, you are an African-American or a Jew or a liberal from South Florida," Hastings said. "That strategy is subtle for some, but it's overt enough to be attractive to the kind of people who are moving to Florida who are looking for their political home. The Democratic Party has a tremendous problem with the white male."

State Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe has no intention of holding back on volatile issues such as Bush's minority appointments, his overhaul of affirmative action and the presidential recount as the party tries to portray Bush as insensitive toward black Floridians.

"That's his record," Poe said, "and part of his record is that he doesn't listen to people."

In such a charged political atmosphere, even the appointment of a new leader for the Florida Highway Patrol raises questions about race.

On Friday, a white Republican was promoted to head the agency over another finalist who is a black Democrat and has been with the patrol longer. Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan said there was some discussion over whether it was a missed opportunity to promote a black officer, but he said the best person was selected for the job.

Republicans say their only goal is for Bush to get the credit they think he deserves. They say he has appointed a record number of black judges since he took office. They say his One Florida program that replaced affirmative action will result in more black students at state universities this fall, not fewer as critics predicted.

"Everybody," said Bush Communications Director Katie Baur, "is sick and tired of the half-truths that have been bandied about for the last couple of months."

- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Barry Klein contributed to this report.

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