Two black Democratic lawmakers, who had staged a sit-in at the state Capitol in Tallahassee overnight to protest a move by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to abolish the state's affirmative action programs, called a truce today after Bush agreed to meet with black legislative leaders and delay further action on his plan.
Bush also agreed to hold legislative hearings on his One Florida Initiative, an executive order he signed in November to eliminate race and gender as factors in state contracting and state employment.
The protest, led by state Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami and state Rep. Anthony C. "Tony" Hill of Jacksonville, had swelled today to include about 20 other Democratic state legislators and about 200 other protesters. It marked the first major confrontation Bush has experienced since taking office a year ago.
The sit-in began Tuesday evening after Meek and Hill met with Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan (R) to urge Bush to rescind the One Florida Initiative. When Brogan, an ardent supporter of the plan, said that Bush's mind was made up, the lawmakers replied that they would camp out in Brogan's office until Bush reconsidered the decision.
Bush, who popped into the lieutenant governor's office, told the men, "I suggest you bring your blankets then," said Meek's aide, Joyce Postell. Meek and Hill accepted the challenge, remaining in Brogan's office overnight, along with nine news reporters who refused to leave. Other protesters thronged the hallways of the Capitol today as news of the protest spread.
The protesting legislators and their supporters said they were upset that Bush had consulted only those black elected officials who supported him before announcing his executive order on Nov. 12. The order, which would end race and gender preferences in state contracts and employment, was part of his proposal to change the state's affirmative action policies in contracting, hiring and university admissions.
State Rep. Beryl Roberts, a Miami Democrat, applauded the governor's decision to hold legislative hearings.
"That is a significant accomplishment," said Roberts, who is African American and supported the protest. "We think it is important to have sufficient dialogue on this One Florida plan. And the fact is, most people don't understand it, aside from it doing away with affirmative action. This will let the governor know how critical it is to have some kind of program to ensure that minorities are treated fairly."
Bush was clearly annoyed by the protest. Initially, at a brief news conference Tuesday, he called the action "childish, sophomoric and unbecoming an elected official" and said he was "not going to waver, of course not."
Today, however, television stations throughout Florida carried damaging videotape of Bush earlier on Tuesday snarling at his press secretary, Justin Sayfie: "Your life's going to be a living hell. Kick their asses out." Sayfie said the governor was referring to reporters swirling around Brogan's office to cover the story, and not the two legislators.
At a news conference today, Bush apologized for the remark. "I made a statement that I'm not going to repeat," he said, "because my mother wouldn't like me to say the 'a-word.' "
Protesters outside the executive offices today prayed and sang "We Shall Overcome," while television videotape showed Meek and Hill sitting on a striped couch inside Brogan's office, surrounded by blankets brought to them by Bush's staff. At midday, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement--two agents for each of the nine reporters--physically removed the reporters who had stayed overnight, but no arrests were made.
The two lawmakers had planned to continue the protest indefinitely, Postell said, but relented after talking with Bush. The governor also agreed to postpone consideration of the One Florida Initiative on Friday by the state Board of Regents, which supervises the state university system. Under Bush's program, admission would be granted to the top 20 percent of students in each of the state's high schools, a plan that Bush contends would increase minority enrollment at the state universities.
Meek, the son of U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.), is "very passionate about this issue," Postell said. "He wants the One Florida plan rescinded because it's going to hurt all minorities."
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Florida state Sen. M. Mandy Dawson (D) is refused entry as she arrives with food and bedding for two legislators who began a sit-in Tuesday in the lieutenant governor's office. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) subsequently agreed to hold hearings on his plan to abolish state affirmative action.