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Jeb Bush's Anti-Affirmative Action Plan Ignites Firestorm

Protesters take issue with his 'One Florida' initiative. Critics say that 'it's all about the letter W'--George W. and Ward Connerly of California.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For Gov. Jeb Bush, the honeymoon ended to the strains of "We Shall Overcome." His list of first-year triumphs--school vouchers, $1 billion in tax cuts and a tough crime bill--were all but forgotten when two black lawmakers staged an executive office sit-in and hundreds of angry protesters rallied outside the state Capitol.

The furor was ignited by an executive order that banned the use of race in state university admissions--and turned Florida into a national battleground over affirmative action.

In protests reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights struggle, African Americans, women and students have been lashing out at Bush's initiative with heartfelt fury.

"Governor, you have hurt women and minorities in the state of Florida--hurt us bad," state Sen. Daryl L. Jones told Bush before some of the 4,000 people who gathered in Miami last month to air their grievances. "And I am not sure you understand how it happened."

Bush's "One Florida" plan has two parts: The one dealing with university admissions, another governing minority-owned firms seeking state contracts.

The plan guarantees that students who graduate in the top 20% of their high school class will be admitted to one of the 10 state universities. Last month, the Board of Regents and the Cabinet approved that aspect of the plan. Similar changes came to California, Texas and Washington, spurred in part by divisive ballot initiatives and, in California's case, by the UC Board of Regents.

The Florida branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has filed suit to block the governor's plan, and thousands of demonstrators opposed to ending affirmative action are expected here today when the Legislature reconvenes. Among those expected to join in the protests are the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, NAACP President and Chief Executive Kweisi Mfume, National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland and various labor and church leaders.

Some observers predict that the fallout could roil the waters for the governor's brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is considered the front-runner in the state's Republican presidential primary set for March 14. However, the latest polls show him with a comfortable lead over rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The mixing of national and state politics--and Bush-family ambitions--is nothing new in Florida. A scheduled speech by former President Bush to a special joint session of the state Legislature this month was canceled after objections from both Democrats and Republicans--including state Comptroller Robert F. Milligan, who heads the Florida presidential campaign for McCain.

The Democratic presidential contenders, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, also have made campaign stops in Florida--attacking Jeb Bush's One Florida plan and, by implication, the Texas blueprint on which it is modeled.

For his part, the governor has seemed stunned by the furor unleashed by his Nov. 9 executive order replacing affirmative action with the One Florida plan.

"This has been a difficult time for me," Bush confessed in Miami last month, as many in the audience jeered and booed. "The last two weeks, I have carried a heavy heart around."

Ironically, Bush's plan to do away with race and gender in deciding university admissions and in handing out state contracts was designed in part to head off more drastic measures being promoted by Ward Connerly, a conservative California businessman and member of the UC Board of Regents. Connerly, one of the leaders of the California effort, wants to kill affirmative action in Florida in the same way it has been scrapped in his home state and in Washington state.

Connerly's group asked the Florida Supreme Court on Monday to approve ballot language on the measure. The seven-member court could take months to make a decision.

Connerly, who was in Florida last month to rally support for his cause, has labeled Bush's initiative a timid proposal, designed only to thwart stronger efforts while protecting his brother's presidential bid.

Opposition to One Florida also has generated criticism from many who see Bush's style of governing as imperious and autocratic.

"The governor did not get 100% of the vote in the state of Florida," said Democratic state Sen. Kendrick Meek, who along with Democratic state Rep. Anthony Hill staged the 25-hour sit-in in January. "But he shuts out people. And that's how you get turmoil started."

During his first 13 months in office, Bush enjoyed steady popular and legislative support. In his 1998 race, Bush campaigned hard in minority neighborhoods, winning 61% of the Latino vote and 14% of the black vote in handily beating his Democrat rival. His approval ratings remain high.

At 47, Bush is known for his attention to detail, long days in the office and frequent late nights at the governor's mansion, e-mailing responses to constituents' queries.

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