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Bush's move fails to dampen race debate

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 1999

Gov. Jeb Bush's ambitious effort to end race-based preferences in state contracting and university admissions was supposed to pour cold water over a simmering debate about affirmative action.

It may have added fuel to the fire.

Instead of chasing away Californian Ward Connerly and Florida contractors who back a constitutional amendment to ban affirmative action, the governor's initiative spurred them on.

Instead of diverting national attention from Florida, it brought more scrutiny as presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Steve Forbes weighed in and the national news media took notice.

Instead of uniting African-American political leaders, it divided them.

That is the short-term impact.

Calculating the long-term political effect of ending decades of affirmative action are tougher.

Now Bush is off on a trade mission to Israel. Democrats are reassessing their strategy. And the state's three African-American members of Congress, Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, Alcee Hastings of Miramar and Carrie Meek of Miami, are planning a news conference for Tuesday in Washington to criticize Bush's plan.

So much for quietly dousing the affirmative action debate.

Bush and his allies insist he is not motivated by Connerly's amendment or politics to wipe out race-based preferences in state contracting and university admissions.

"This is a personal thing for Jeb," said House Speaker John Thrasher, an Orange Park Republican who is close to Bush. "If you get someone with the power of personality and understanding that Jeb Bush has, he can move it a long way."

But the governor's bold move is shrouded in politics, regardless of his personal commitment to diversity.

Bush had unprecedented success as a Florida Republican winning votes from black Democrats last year, picking up 14 percent of the black vote. His brother has done even better with black and Hispanic Democrats in Texas.

Now George W. Bush is running for president. Republicans don't want to jeopardize their gains among minority voters with a divisive constitutional amendment on the same 2000 ballot in Florida as the candidates for president.

The Bush brothers also learned some lessons from Pete Wilson. As the Republican governor of California, Wilson joined Connerly in backing a 1996 amendment ending affirmative action there. Republicans have paid dearly for it. Democrats kept control of the Legislature and won the governor's race last year. A larger portion of Hispanics are registering as Democrats, remembering the 1994 initiative that denied state aid to illegal immigrants and the 1996 proposition that banned affirmative action.

"It seemed that the Republican Party in two straight elections was getting behind initiatives that seemed to be detrimental to minorities," said Mark DiCamillo, director of Field Research, a San Francisco polling firm. "That stayed in voters' minds."

That is why in Florida, Bush called Connerly's amendment divisive and state GOP chairman Al Cardenas lobbied party donors to stay away from it.

"Why deal with an issue that doesn't add to a positive equation?" Cardenas said after a fundraiser last week for George W. Bush in Orlando.

For many Democrats, Connerly's amendment and Bush's proposal put them in an awkward spot. They don't want Connerly's amendment on the ballot any more than Republicans do, even if it would bring more women and minorities to the polls.

A St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll shows voters support the amendment by a more than 2-to-1 ratio.

Yet some are cautious about embracing Bush's plan, which includes guaranteeing a spot in college to all students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school classes.

"Sometimes politics makes strange bedfellows," said Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach legislator recruiting Democrats for the 2000 state House elections. "It is to his party's political advantage for this not to be on the ballot. And from the perspective of women and minorities, it is to their advantage for it not to be on the ballot. But whether the governor's proposal means the end of women and minorities in government projects, we'll see."

But the Democrats have no powerful statewide voice to effectively counter Bush or Connerly.

State Democratic Chairman Charles Whitehead and Frankel are deferring to black Democrats for now, but black state legislators are divided. Rep. Les Miller of Tampa is critical of the governor's plan; Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami is working with Bush to help carry it out.

The most persuasive critiques have come from Meek in Washington.

"The affirmative action law was all we had for a chance at equality of opportunity," writes Meek. "The governor is saying "trust me.' "Trust me' may be how you sell used cars, but it's not how you deliver equal rights."

When Bush left for Israel, his ears were ringing with compliments.

By the time he returns this week, the tenor of the affirmative action debate may have changed.

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