What went wrong?

The Florida governor's kindler, gentler affirmative action reform draws a firestorm of protest from the very people it aims to help.

Published February 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

George W. Bush's younger brother Jeb was on a roll. After
resoundingly defeating Democrat Buddy McKay in November 1998 to
become the governor of Florida, he had been enjoying a honeymoon
through 1999. Working with Republican majorities in the state's
House and Senate, a luxury not afforded a Florida governor since
Reconstruction, Bush had been able to pass much of his agenda,
including a controversial school voucher program.

Maybe most remarkably, Bush was putting together a multiracial
coalition rare among Republicans. Fluent in Spanish and married
to a native of Mexico, he has always enjoyed strong support among
the mostly conservative Cuban-American community in South
Florida. Lately his appeal to other Hispanics across the state
appeared to be increasing as well. And, in part as a result of
infighting among Democrats, Bush even had managed to pick up some
black support.

In his losing 1994 campaign, Bush had responded to a question
about what he would do for blacks if elected by saying, "Probably
nothing." Since then Bush has sent out a different message
stressing "diversity," and had seemed well on his way to
repairing the damage caused by his earlier statements.

Now, in a stunning turnaround, a proposal that Bush says will
increase minority enrollment in public universities and boost
state procurement from minority-owned firms has drawn a firestorm
of protest from the very people it's supposed to help. His One
Florida Initiative was intended as a kinder, gentler end to
affirmative action than the constitutional amendment now being
pushed in the state by Ward Connerly and his allies, which
generally copies California's Proposition 209.

The lesson instead may be that there is no easy way to avert a
divisive fight over affirmative action. Rather than promoting a
united Florida, the governor's plan has exposed, in stark relief,
deep racial divisions in a state where the New South, the Sunbelt
and the "new immigration" meet. Public hearings, the latest
scheduled for Thursday in Tallahassee, have drawn huge, angry
crowds. The controversy has eroded Bush's modest gains among
blacks, alienated many women and upset some Hispanics who had
supported the Republican governor. The process has underscored
the pitfalls and limitations of "compassionate conservatism" and
the Republican outreach to minority voters.

How did it go so wrong? Most early reviews of the governor's plan
were generally positive. The educational component, which would
guarantee enrollment in a public university to the top 20 percent
of high school graduates, received early support from a black
leader in the Legislature. But then a majority of black political
leaders rejected the plan and persuaded their colleague to
reverse course.

Blacks resented not having been included in its design, charged
that it would decrease black enrollment in the most prestigious
campuses and in professional and graduate programs, and felt the
procurement component relied entirely on the goodwill of the
state's chief executive. In the absence of reliable data, it is
hard to sort out competing claims, but the University of Florida,
one of the state's top universities, estimates that black
enrollment there would drop from 611 to 204 and that Hispanic
enrollment would fall from 709 to 492.

The turning point that transformed a policy proposal into an
emotional civil rights confrontation came in January in the
Capitol. Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and Rep. Tony Hill,
D-Jacksonville, wanted to meet with Bush to press their demand
that the governor rescind a November 1999 executive order that
effectively ended racial and gender preferences in education and
state contracting. Bush refused. Aides to the governor told Meek
and Hill they would "wait a long time to see the governor" and
"should bring a blanket." It was the wrong time for sarcasm, the
wrong people to challenge and the wrong place for a showdown.

Hill, along with Meek -- the son of Miami's U.S. Rep. Carrie
Meek, D-Fla., the first black elected to Congress from Florida
since Reconstruction -- refused to leave. Reporters were kicked
out. But soon college students -- Tallahassee is the home of
Florida A&M, a historically black institution -- were sitting on
the floor of the Capitol singing "We Shall Overcome" in support
of the sit-in.

After being warned by a key black advisor that removing the two
husky members of the Legislature by force would be a public
relations disaster, Bush was forced to compromise, instantly
transforming Meek and Hill into heroes in the black community.
Bush agreed to appoint a select legislative committee and
schedule public hearings on the One Florida Initiative in Tampa,
Miami and Tallahassee. It was a decision he has probably come to

The Tampa hearing drew 600 angry people, the vast majority of
whom wanted the One Florida Initiative scrapped. That was only a
prelude to Miami.

There, an overwhelmingly black crowd of more 4,000 rotated in and
out of the downtown Gusman Center (capacity: 1,711). With the
governor present, the crowd cheered wildly as speaker after
speaker blasted Bush and his plan. One compared the rollback of
affirmative action to Ku Klux Klan violence after Reconstruction:
"Now they don't wear robes and hoods, they wear $2,500 suits."
The room erupted.

While blacks have found new unity in opposing the One Florida
Initiative, Hispanics are divided on the issue, often along party
lines. Critics include Rep. Anne Betancourt, D-Miami, and Mayor
of Miami-Dade County Alex Penelas, a powerful and charismatic
Democrat (Miami-Dade County is the greater metropolitan entity
that includes the city of Miami and other Dade County cities).
Republicans, including Rep. Luis Rojas, R-Miami, are lined up
solidly behind the governor's plan. Rojas contends that, with
voter sentiment running more than 80 percent in favor of ending
race and gender preferences, the One Florida Initiative offers
the best hope of averting passage of a constitutional amendment
that would have a devastating impact. Supporters fail to mention
another possible motive behind Bush's effort to blunt the
Connerly initiative: avoiding a large black turnout in the
November elections, which would hurt the Republican presidential

In fact, however, Connerly has not ceased in his effort to place
a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action on the
Florida ballot. Thus a heated referendum battle may still take
place; Gov. Bush may have brought a lot of grief upon himself for

And the fun may have just begun for Jeb Bush. Speaking before a
predominantly black crowd at a church in Tallahassee on Saturday,
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader,
called the One Florida Initiative "the Bush whack." In campaign
swings through the Sunshine State this week, both Bill Bradley
and Al Gore blasted the One Florida Initiative, indirectly taking
shots at George W. Bush. On Tuesday, 2,000 students marched on
the state Capitol and managed to extract some modest concessions
from the governor.

The hearing scheduled for Thursday will be held in a larger
facility than originally planned. A coalition of groups opposed to the governor's plan
is planning a massive march in Tallahassee on March 7 -- just in
time to steal the thunder from the Bush's State of the State
speech which opens the year's legislative session.

The One Florida Initiative debacle has set back Republican
efforts to capture a larger slice of the minority vote in Florida
and, to a lesser extent, the nation. Although many people who
vehemently oppose the proposal are unlikely to have read it, the
closed-door way Jeb Bush developed the One Florida Initiative is
widely seen as paternalistic and politically inept. While a poll
taken after the Tampa hearing showed Bush's high approval rating
had only dropped slightly, subsequent events have no doubt taken
an additional political toll.

The controversy that is now hurting Jeb Bush will not help George
W. either, should he be the GOP presidential nominee. "We'll
remember in November" was a frequently voiced refrain at the
Miami hearing. One speaker was more personal: "In November, we're
gonna get your brother."

By Max J. Castro

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