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  •   Affirmative Action Tears at Fla. GOP

    Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) speaks to state legislators about school vouchers in April. (AP File Photo)
    By Terry M. Neal and David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, May 15, 1999; Page A1

    Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has mobilized Republicans in his state in an effort to keep an anti-affirmative action initiative off the ballot in 2000, wading into an issue that has divided the national party.

    Ward Connerly, the California businessman who sponsored similar and successful initiatives in his home state and Washington, has brushed aside arguments that more of these efforts would create racial divisiveness at a time the GOP is trying to expand its appeal among minorities. Connerly announced last week that he has begun collecting signatures to put it on the ballot in Florida.

    The result is that a struggle few Republican strategists welcome is boiling up in a key electoral battleground, drawing in the younger brother of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the early leader in presidential polls for 2000. Several of his conservative rivals for the nomination are clearly on Connerly's side, but some top GOP officials fret that spotlighting the issue with another Connerly initiative may damage the party nationally.

    Florida Republican Chairman Al Cardenas and his aides have lobbied business groups to withhold financing from the initiative. But Connerly said this week he is pressing ahead, bolstered by a pledge of money from one key group targeted by Jeb Bush, the Florida Associated General Contractors Council.

    Connerly's critics say his victories have been expensive because they activated and antagonized growing numbers of minority voters. One prominent GOP strategist said, "There's no doubt core Republicans support Connerly's position. But the general electorate is divided on affirmative action, and the emotions you stir by raising the issue galvanize some voters for the Democrats."

    The party's dilemma is mirrored in the uncomfortable stance of its most-endorsed 2000 hopeful, George Bush. He supported the federal court decision banning the use of racial preferences at the University of Texas law school but has declined to answer questions about the Connerly initiative. In Texas, he has endorsed what he calls "affirmative access," rather than affirmative action, exemplified by the policy that qualifies the top 10 percent of the graduates of every high school in Texas for admission to the university.

    Most of Bush's rivals for the nomination have denounced "quotas," and several have endorsed Connerly's efforts. But the national GOP became cautious about that approach after the 1996 California election, in which then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) strongly supported the Connerly initiative -- and Democrats made major gains. Democrats also won victories in Washington in 1998, even as the Connerly initiative was approved.

    When the House voted on language identical to Connerly's as an amendment to the Higher Education Act in 1998, 55 Republicans joined all but five Democrats in opposition, while 166 Republicans supported the amendment.

    The Florida initiative, modeled on those in California and Washington, declares state and local governments "shall not discriminate against, or grant any preferential treatment to, any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin." It would cover admission to state universities, hiring and contracting by all levels of government.

    Jeb Bush, who gave Connerly no encouragement when they met briefly in Tallahassee in January, said in an interview last week that he has seen no problems with Florida's affirmative action program, but if they exist, "we don't have to have an initiative. . . . We can make changes" through executive orders or legislation "to ensure that affirmative action programs aren't based on rigid quotas but . . . on providing opportunities for people on a voluntary basis."

    He added, "These initiatives, from what I can see, provide a lot of heat but not a lot of light. They divide and make it harder to get a lot of things done."

    Jeb Bush, who is bilingual and has a Mexican American wife, campaigned extensively for minority support in 1998 and won 61 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls. He raised his share of the African American vote to 14 percent, double what he had received in his losing 1994 race.

    Connerly, who is African American, said in a telephone interview that "my belief is that the Florida GOP has somehow cut an implicit deal with black elected leaders and is scared to death of Latino leaders, both of whom are looking at it solely on the basis that 'this is something for our people.' "

    He said Bush's comments "are the typical rhetorical dance that politicians do," adding, "They know if it gets on the ballot that it will pass, so they are doing everything to discourage it from getting on."

    Cardenas, the state's first Hispanic GOP chairman, conceded that "once it's on the ballot, it's a tough call for us" to spend resources to defeat it, especially in an election year when the GOP must finance a race for an open Senate seat and many legislative contests.

    Herb Harmon, a former executive director of the Florida GOP who has been hired by Connerly to run the initiative campaign, said Cardenas was not having much success in his fight to keep the initiative off the ballot.

    At the very least, party leaders hoped to convince supporters to delay the initiative until 2002. But Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Associated General Contractors Council, said his board of directors was unpersuaded and voted to contribute $60,000 "for starters" to a signature-gathering campaign that Connerly said has begun.

    The sponsors face an arduous challenge. They must collect 45,000 signatures before the state Supreme Court will review the initiative's proposed language. If they win court approval, organizers must collect 450,000 valid signatures to gain a place on the ballot. Harmon said the professional firm from California hired to collect the signatures estimates the cost of the first 45,000 names at $100,000, with $1 million needed for the full ballot-access drive. The campaign to pass it "will cost $2 million to $4 million, depending on the intensity of the opposition," he said.

    Connerly touts a poll that suggests more than 80 percent of Floridians would vote for the initiative as worded in California and Washington. That wording omits any direct mention of affirmative action.

    But Jim Kane, director of the nonpartisan Florida Voter Poll, said support drops precipitously if voters believe the initiative calls for abolishing all affirmative action programs. One such measure failed in Houston last year. In a poll Kane conducted last year in Florida, support dropped from more than 80 percent on the Connerly-worded measure to 48 percent on a measure using the term affirmative action.

    Tom Slade, Cardenas's predecessor as party chairman, said the initiative is unpalatable to minorities from whom Bush and the GOP have begun to gain support. "Connerly's initiative has the appearance of a move that would disaffect certain segments of our society," Slade said. "That may be more perception than reality, but in politics, perception is reality."

    Some members of minority groups in Florida have applauded Bush and the state GOP. Others have offered guarded praise or outright skepticism that Republican leaders would actively work against the measure if Connerly gets it on the ballot.

    "I think they will verbalize their position to the media and that will be the extent of their effort," said state Sen. Daryl Jones (D), chairman of the legislative Black Caucus.

    Some conservatives expressed dismay at Bush's and Cardenas's actions. "I think their position is at odds with the vast majority of Republicans in this state," said Jim Cherry, former chairman of the Florida Conservative Union, who is assisting Connerly 's effort.

    Indeed, at first glance, Florida might seem the perfect setting for such an initiative. For the first time this century, the state has a Republican governor and a GOP majority in both legislative chambers. But while the state is conservative on economic and foreign policy, it continues to be socially moderate, most pollsters and political scientists say.

    Bush, who lost in 1994 to then-Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), was defeated in part because many voters thought he was too conservative on social issues. Last year, he promoted a more moderate course.

    In the five months he has been in office, Bush has pushed through the legislature a statewide school voucher plan, increased public school funding by $750 million and cut taxes by $1 billion. While the voucher plan has been a source of much debate, Bush has otherwise avoided controversial social issues, such as affirmative action, public school prayer and abortion, instead choosing to focus on "things I can make a difference in."

    His opposition to Connerly's initiative is "good politics," Bush said. "And it's also the right thing to do."

    Neal reported from Tallahassee; Broder, from Washington.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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