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    Candidate stance on Bush plan criticized

    County Commission hopeful James Hargrett Jr. is skewered for not strongly opposing the "One Florida'' initiative.

    By DAVID KARP

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 2000


    TAMPA -- It was one of the most dramatic moments of the legislative year. Two black state lawmakers staged a sit-in inside the Capitol in January to protest Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to end affirmative action in Florida.

    As the two legislators camped overnight in the Capitol, a senior senator from Tampa, James T. Hargrett Jr., quietly criticized the move.

    "I don't think it's probably something I would do as a legislator," Hargrett said. "To me, the first approach for a state senator or a state representative is within the body they serve under the state constitution."

    Now, as Hargrett finds himself in a tough race for the District 3 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, he has mailed out fliers and bought ads in minority-owned newspapers that portray him as a leading opponent of part of Bush's "One Florida" plan.

    The ads boast that Hargrett was the only Florida senator to file legislation to stop Bush's plan to end affirmative action in state contracting.

    "That's right," the ad says. "Senator Hargrett's Senate Bill 2340 would have halted implementation of One Florida's changes to minority contracting rules ... "

    Hargrett, who can't run for the Senate again because of term limits, said the ad accurately reflects his work to halt part of Bush's plan. In some ways, it reflects his approach to governing. His bill, which died in a Senate committee, would have created a commission to study the issue.

    But Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who led the sit-in in the Capitol, ridiculed Hargrett's claims Thursday, saying Hargrett was a "quiet supporter" of Bush's plan and did not lift a finger to block it.

    "I don't know how many times you can change coats," Meek said.

    "Sen. Hargrett was very cordial and had an open love affair with the governor's office and with the GOP. They can count on his vote and him not really speaking out on issues we really needed his help on," Meek said. "When we needed unity and consistency, Jim Hargrett was absent. He just wasn't there. If he was there, he was on the other side."

    Hargrett's opponents in the Sept. 5 Democratic primary, incumbent Commissioner Tom Scott and neighborhood leader Betty Reed, also criticized Hargrett's ad Wednesday. "Well, it is just interesting that during this whole debate about One Florida, I think Hargrett was nowhere to be seen and nowhere to be found," Scott said.

    Reed said Hargrett's bill would not have done anything to stop Bush from eliminating affirmative action in college admissions.

    Hargrett said he took no position on Bush's plan to end college race- and gender-based admissions policies because he did not have time to study the issue.

    But Hargrett said his bill, filed the day 11,000 protesters marched on the Capitol to oppose One Florida, was a constructive attempt to block Bush without losing his effectiveness.

    "I personally am not an admirer of legislators going into the streets, sitting in and stuff," Hargrett said. "I did that when I was a student. I marched with Martin Luther King ... But once I get to be an elected official, I have a constituency to contend with."

    By keeping a close relationship with the governor, Hargrett said, he was able to accomplish a lot more than Meek. He got $250,000 for an outdoor community market on 29th Street, funded a minority business incubator, and steered $1.5-million to inner-city redevelopment grants, he said.

    Asked about the sit-in, Hargrett chuckled.

    "You mean the riot?" he said.

    Hargrett, who endorsed Bush in the 1998 governor's race, said he took a risk by introducing the bill and getting it heard in a Senate committee, where it passed 6-0 before dying in another committee.

    "To get that bill heard took quite a bit of advocacy on my part with the leadership, given the chemistry that had been created," Hargrett said. "To just give it a hearing, there were many people who thought it would embarrass the governor. But I was insistent."

    Meek was skeptical.

    "I have seen Sen. Hargrett on his best day. He is one of the smartest people on the floor. But there was a lot of straddling the fence on a lot of issues," Meek said.

    Hargrett, who voted against part of Bush's plan, disputed that.

    "When you file legislation, you commit yourself," Hargrett said.

    Hargrett, though, never sought out a House sponsor for the bill. He said he was surprised a House sponsor did not step forward on his own.

    "Politics is not a sport," said Hargrett, noting that no voters have asked him about the issue or the flier. "A lot of people in my district are more concerned about performance than partisanship."

    The winner of the Sept. 5 primary will face Libertarian candidate Joe Redner in the November general election.

    - David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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