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Politics puts wedge into Bush's alliance with state senator

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 1999


Florida Democrats don't have many bright young stars.

Name three Democrats under 50 years old you could envision being elected governor or U.S. senator any time soon, and an all-expenses paid trip to the state Democratic convention next month in Orlando is yours.

Daryl Jones ought to be on that short list.

The state senator from Miami is smart, handsome and articulate. He generally thinks before he talks. He has the confidence of a former fighter pilot, and he has caught the eye of presidents and governors.

Now he may have blown it all.

Jones is at the center of the escalating battle over the future of affirmative action in Florida. First he sided with opponents of Ward Connerly's ballot initiative to wipe out affirmative action in Florida, agreeing to sponsor a competing amendment that would preserve affirmative action in the state Constitution.

Then Jones swooned when Republican Gov. Jeb Bush whispered in his ear. He agreed to head Bush's task force that would help carry out the governor's bid to end race-based university admission policies. Instead, Bush wants to guarantee the top 20 percent of every high school graduating class a spot at one of the state's 10 universities.

But Jones couldn't stand the heat.

He resigned from the task force last week, just a day after issuing a long statement explaining his position and defending his decision to work with the Republican governor. Apparently forced to choose between Bush's task force or his chairmanship of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, pressured by Democrats from Florida to Washington, Jones reversed course.

Now Bush is shocked, shocked by the injection of politics into the debate. Jones is being criticized on the editorial pages of his hometown paper, the Miami Herald.

And the affirmative action debate that Bush hoped to quiet has blown up in his face.

The surprise here is not that Bush's proposal failed to drive away Connerly. Or that Jones didn't last a week as head of the governor's task force.

The surprise is how naive both Jones and Bush were about the forces of politics in something as explosive as affirmative action.

Jones has been in the Legislature for nearly a decade. He should have understood the political risks of aligning himself with a Republican governor who wants to end affirmative action. Yet it is apparent he did not thoroughly consult with other Democrats, black or white, before agreeing to work with Bush.

Late last week, Jones told me he misunderstood Bush's intentions. He said he did not realize the governor planned to issue an executive order immediately ending racial preferences in awarding state contracts. He said he thought the state's current policies in state contracting and university admissions would remain in place until the task force and the Legislature agreed upon new ones.

"If he implemented it the way I thought it was going to be, then it would have been fine," said Jones, who said he thought Bush was only creating the task force. "What could have been wrong with that? There would have been nothing wrong with that."

Given Bush's angry response to Jones' resignation, it takes a leap of faith to believe there was a misunderstanding of such magnitude.

Both Democratic candidates for president, Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, strongly support affirmative action. It ranks up there with abortion rights as a core issue for Democrats. If Jones had sought counsel from other black legislators or from U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, he would not have been forced into such an embarrassing public reversal.

Instead, those sorts of conversations did not take place until last week. Jones said he spoke to other legislators, South Florida business leaders and officials in Washington he would not name before resigning from the task force.

Bush made a rare political miscalculation as well.

His use of Jones as a human shield against criticism from Democrats worked briefly. White Democrats, from state party chairman Charles Whitehead to state legislators, were reluctant to criticize Bush's plan with Jones heading the task force. It also temporarily disarmed black legislators, who tempered their initial criticism.

But the governor made a common mistake. He apparently assumed Jones could speak for the black caucus as its chairman. The black caucus is not homogeneous. It rarely speaks with one voice.

While Bush takes credit for vetting his proposals with university regents and some legislators, he did not cast a wide enough net beyond his supporters. A more prudent approach would have been to seek out more opinions from a more diverse group and to proceed more slowly.

Instead, any hope of avoiding a bitter partisan fight over ending affirmative action appears to have been lost.

While Bush complains Jones' resignation from his task force "was based on nothing more than political considerations," the governor is every bit as political. He wants to block Connerly, and he wants to help his brother become president.

As for Jones, this has taken more of the luster off of his star.

Just last year, a U.S. Senate committee killed his nomination to be secretary of the Air Force. The reasons, which included concerns about his record as a fighter pilot, were just as political as those for the controversy over affirmative action.

Now he has another episode that would take some explaining in a tough, statewide campaign.

"I give him credit for being savvy," Jones said of the way Bush used him. "I was a little bit naive, I admit."

By now, he should know better.

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