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REACHING OUT: Gov. Jeb Bush makes conciliatory statements about Florida's judiciary, black voters and the issue of election reform.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000
TALLAHASSEE -- Like other leaders across America, a weary Gov. Jeb Bush tried to ease political rifts Thursday, distancing himself from harsh rhetoric and appointing a task force to investigate Florida's notorious election problems.
"My guess is that all of these things need to be looked at," Bush said. "My guess is there will probably be some recommendations to move away from the Votomatic machines -- or whatever they are called."
Bush praised Vice President Al Gore for setting "a tone of reconciliation and healing for our country."
"I'm glad this is over," Bush said. "I've been trying to talk to my brother, but his phone has been busy. I tried to call him last night and the night before to tell him how proud I am."
After weeks of roller-coaster lawsuits, Bush made a point to praise the "strong, independent judiciary" and said the Florida Supreme Court and other state judges involved in the presidential fight "deserve high praise for handling a tremendous amount of pressure with a lot of grace and a lot of dignity."
He said he supports a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigation which will look into complaints that African-American voters were turned away from polls, wrongly listed as convicted felons and voted at districts that had outdated equipment.
Bush made his remarks at a news conference that featured some of the Florida politicians who ended up on the world's stage during the last month. Most of the satellite trucks were decamping, heading off to the next story.
Besides Bush, the lineup included Senate President John McKay, House Speaker Tom Feeney, House Democratic leader Lois Frankel, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
All said Florida clearly needs to improve its voting system. But they were vague about details and costs, saying that the new 21-member bipartisan Elections Task Force would investigate and submit a report in time for the start of the 2001 legislative session in March.
Four of the commission members are from the Tampa Bay area. They are state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning, Tampa Judge Marva Crenshaw and Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd.
This week, Florida Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts said fixing Florida's election system could have a huge price tag -- as much as $200-million -- an amount that makes some state lawmakers blanch. Roberts said reforms probably can't be in place until the next presidential election in 2004.
Harris announced that she will submit a budget request next month that will include more funds for counties to upgrade equipment.
"Surely," she said, "the investment in such technology is negligible as compared to the protections of our citizens' votes. "As for counting the ballots, neither mechanical error nor fraud has been alleged," Harris said. "As secretary of state, I will concentrate on eliminating the core problem: voting systems that failed to make the will of the voter self-evident." Harris said her weeks in the media glare have left her "very uncomfortable."
"I'm not a real spotlight politician," she said.
Bush acknowledged that he will have to work on improving relations with the state's minority voters, already stung by his One Florida plan to eliminate most affirmative action policies.
In the two years Bush has held office, there have been five civil rights demonstrations at Florida's Capitol. The Rev. Jesse Jackson announced this week he plans to open a civil rights office in Tallahassee.
When asked whether One Florida may have cost his brother votes in Florida, Bush said, "It might have."
"I think that the majority of the efforts made in the African-American community, in terms of advertising and phone calls . . . none of them were related to One Florida," Bush said. "They were related to the case of a man who was brutally murdered in Texas. And that was used as a wedge, if you will, to try to create uncertainty about my brother's commitment to civil rights."
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a group appointed by President Bill Clinton, is coming to Tallahassee next month to investigate voter complaints. The commission will take sworn testimony from Harris and other officials. Bush said he has asked Butterworth to assist in that investigation. Butterworth said his civil rights division is looking into complaints.
"If people, based on race, color or creed, were denied access in a systematic fashion, then I will work on that," Bush said.
Reporters asked Bush about his own political future, with Florida's election spectacle grabbing headlines around the world and Democrats mounting a campaign to unseat him in 2002.
"I don't think much about my political future. We just finished an election," Bush said. "It would be appropriate for everybody to take a deep breath. . . . I'll make up my mind at the proper time frame about whether I'll run for re-election."
Bush said the rough rhetoric of recent weeks shows "there's a direct relationship between the number of satellite dishes in a given location and the people from the outside that come and express their opinions."
"I don't take things personally," Bush said.
"If I took it personally as governor, all the things people say about me, I'd be sitting on a couch just noodling my navel all the time. What do you call it? Navel gazing."
Co-chairman Tad Foote, 62, University of Miami president, a Democrat from Coral Gables
Co-chairman Jim Smith, 60, former Florida secretary of state, Tallahassee Republican
11th Judicial Circuit Judge Cecilia Altanoga, 38, Coral Gables Republican
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning, 42, Dade City Democrat
Government consultant Anne Jolley Thomas Byrd, 41, Tallahassee Democrat
Florida Times Union publisher Carl Cannon, 57, Jacksonville Republican
Broward Supervisor of Elections Jane Carroll, 70, Plantation Republican
University of Florida Provost David Coburn, 58, Gainesville Democrat
13th Judicial Circuit Judge Marva Crenshaw, 49, Tampa Democrat
State Sen. Daryl Jones, 45, D-Miami
Real estate broker Phil Lewis, 71, West Palm Beach Democrat
Palm Beach County Commissioner Warren Newell, 46, Lantana Republican
Madison County Sheriff Joe Peavy, 68, Madison Democrat
State Rep. Marco Rubio, 29, Miami Republican
Attorney Tom Rumberger, 68, Tallahassee Republican
State Sen. Jim Sebesta, 65, R-St. Petersburg
Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, 58, Republican
State Rep. Chris Smith, 30, D-Fort Lauderdale
Attorney H. Kenza van Assenderp, 59, no party affiliation, Tallahassee
St. Lucie Supervisor of Election Gertrude Walker, 51, Fort Pierce Democrat
Pastor Joe Wright, 48, Tallahassee Republican
From the state wire
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