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Gov. Bush's summer essay of woes

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 1999

If Gov. Jeb Bush were to imitate children who are returning to Florida schools and writing about their summers, his essay would not be as upbeat as most.

On the personal side, his wife got caught sneaking who knows what through Customs and paid a fine. The wife of his lieutenant governor died of cancer. His brother is besieged with questions about cocaine use.

On the job it's not all roses, either.

The state Supreme Court may pull the plug on the electric chair. A prison inmate apparently was beaten to death by guards, triggering criminal investigations. A deal to settle a lawsuit over South Florida congressional districts blew up. A divisive effort to place amendments on the 2000 ballot to ban affirmative action is gaining steam.

Suddenly your summer camps and beach trips don't sound so bad.

It would have been impossible to stay as sky-high as Bush was for his first few months in office. An inauguration and a remarkable first legislative session featuring record tax cuts and the nation's boldest tuition voucher program propelled him to a fast start.

Now the new governor has fallen back to earth.

The soft feature stories about Bush's craving for good coffee in Tallahassee or his regular walks up the stairs in the 22-story Capitol have disappeared. The ceremonial bill signings are done. The excitement carried over from the campaign into the first few months in office has given way to the demands of the job.

Sooner or later, all governors are tested by circumstances they can't control or don't anticipate. For Bob Martinez in 1987, it was a crisis over a tax on services that voters never forgot. For Lawton Chiles in 1991, it was a recession that forced severe budget cuts and Hurricane Andrew the following year.

For Bush, it is test time. The issues posing the greatest challenges are the same ones he highlighted in his campaigns.

In 1994, the Republican emphasized his support for the death penalty and an eagerness to speed up executions. He even aired a controversial television ad featuring a mother whose child's killer was waiting on death row.

Now the electric chair could be retired under Bush's watch. During the first execution since he became governor, blood dripped from the body of triple murderer Allen Lee Davis. That renewed the long debate over whether the electric chair constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday.

Bush could have taken a courageous stand and recommended that if Florida is so determined to keep the death penalty it could at least switch to death by lethal injection, now the method of choice in most states. A state corrections oversight committee already has suggested the switch, but the governor is content to have the court make a decision that should be made by the state's elected leaders.

How will Bush react if the court rules that using the chair is unconstitutional? Will he demagogue on the issue as he once did as a candidate or provide some measure of dignity?

The electric chair controversy tests Bush's leadership skills in one way. The crisis in the state prison system tests it in another.

Prisons have given Florida governors heartburn for more than 20 years. Bob Graham housed inmates in tents. Martinez was forced to release prisoners early to ease overcrowding. Chiles had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new prisons when he would have preferred to spend the money on education and children.

For those governors, the answers were clear. More money, longer prison sentences and more cells. Bush faces an even tougher challenge: changing behavior and operating procedures in a prison culture where generations of North Florida families are accustomed to running things their way.

The governor's initial moves are encouraging. He did not try to block the criminal investigations. After some initial bumps, the state has been fairly open in dealing with the media's new scrutiny of the Department of Corrections. Last week's media tour of three prisons was another smart public relations move.

Bush talked tough on crime in both campaigns, and he fulfilled a pledge this spring to lengthen sentences for criminals who use guns. When the criminal investigations are over, the governor and state legislators will be expected to respond with initiatives to modernize the operation of Florida's prisons.

Meanwhile, another area that is supposed to be the governor's strength is testing his political skills.

Bush probably campaigned more than any statewide Republican ever for support from black Democrats and won 14 percent of the black vote. Those gains are threatened by the mishandling of a lawsuit over South Florida congressional districts and by a brewing affirmative action battle.

The governor was ill-served by whoever advised him to sign off last week on the settlement that would reduce the number of black adults in the districts represented by Reps. Alcee Hastings and Carrie Meek. Hastings and Meek, probably Florida's best-known black politicians, were elected in 1992 after federal judges created their districts to empower black voters.

To nonchalantly sign off on changes to those districts without personally checking with Meek and Hastings was naive. While Bush had no role in redrawing the districts, he is the biggest target for Democrats. He stands to lose the most from a controversy that was easily avoidable.

This is the last thing Bush needs as he examines the state's affirmative action policies. Californian Ward Connerly is gaining momentum in his drive to get constitutional amendments on the 2000 ballot to ban affirmative action. Even conservative U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has joined Bush and GOP party leaders in hoping Connerly and his divisive campaign goes away.

Throughout the campaign and his first months in office, Bush walked a fuzzy line. He is against quotas and set-asides and for affirmative access, whatever that means. To overhaul the state's policies in a way that would satisfy Connerly without ruining the GOP's efforts to win over black voters would be a neat trick for the governor.

Nobody said the job was easy.

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