Bush avoids affirmative action battle
Originally published Jan. 1, 1998
By GADY EPSTEIN/For The Tampa Tribune

TALLAHASSEE – Without the help of Republican Jeb Bush, an anti-affirmative action initiative stalled in Florida.

Little more than a year ago, a controversial initiative to end race and gender preferences in California was one of the hottest political issues in the nation.

Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole and Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson stumped for the issue, hoping it would be a lightning rod for white middle-class voters and tilt them to Republicans in 1996. The initiative passed and has since withstood constitutional challenges.

In 1997, though, the issue fizzled in two other states with large minority populations, Texas and Florida. An anti-affirmative action initiative suffered defeat in a closely watched vote in Houston, and Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush was noticeably absent from the debate.

Florida’s petition drive for the 1998 ballot, modeled after California’s initiative, died without the help of Bush’s brother Jeb, who happens to be running for governor in 1998. The new goal is the year 2000, but even that may be difficult.

Why are Jeb Bush and the Republican establishment refusing to help an initiative they support, especially one that polls say a majority of voters might approve?

Bush campaign manager Sally Harrell says the candidate supports the language of the initiative, which would bar race and gender preferences by governments, but isn’t convinced it’s necessary in Florida.

“He thinks that we have the laws on the books to guarantee fairness in this process,” Harrell said.

Experts, pollsters and critics of the initiative, though, say Bush’s reasoning has little to do with public policy and much to do with the increased power of women and minority voters. Bush is making a concerted effort in this campaign to appeal to those groups, who voted overwhelmingly against him in his failed 1994 bid for governor.

“Jeb, I believe, is concerned about being labeled an extremist again, which he feels contributed to his defeat to Lawton Chiles in 1994,” says Jim Kane, chief pollster for the Florida Voter Poll. “One of the ways he can prove he’s not a right-wing crazy is by avoiding controversial issues.”

Kane and some others suggest Bush actually quashed the anti-affirmative action issue so it wouldn’t hamper his gubernatorial bid.

“There was no enthusiasm from the traditional conservative groups that would support this item to put it on the ballot in 1998, and there’s got to be a reason for that,” Kane says.

Tampa’s Leon Russell, president of the Florida conference of the NAACP, points to the fact that a foundation run by one of Bush’s staunch supporters hired away the Florida initiative’s organizer. Orlando accountant John Barry is abandoning his anti-affirmative action effort to become president of the conservative James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.

“Jeb Bush doesn’t want to be tarred and feathered with the bigot brush, so I think he’s called Mr. Barry off and given him an alternative charge so that he can get through the political season without having to bear that burden,” Russell says.

Barry and others deny there’s any connection between his new job and Bush’s campaign for governor. Harrell says the candidate’s aspirations have nothing to do with his refusal to back the initiative.

“He does not make a decision on whether to support or oppose an issue based on the political consequences,” Harrell says.

But State Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade acknowledges that the minority vote is a key reason Republican leaders are staying on the sidelines on the anti-affirmative action initiative in 1998.

“At a point in time where we’re making a very concentrated effort and attempt to include the African American community more as an integrated part of our party, it just seemed an appropriate time to watch and listen rather than be proactive,” Slade says.

The Florida initiative would change the state constitution to bar state and local governments and public universities from considering race or gender in deciding whom to give contracts, hire or educate. The effort failed, however, garnering just 4,000 signatures, less than 1 percent of the amount needed to put the issue before voters in 1998.

Similar efforts are under way in other states, though Washington is the only state where success is anticipated soon. On Friday, organizers there are expected to turn in more than 200,000 petition signatures to ban race and gender preferences.

Many say the timing just isn’t right in Florida for a war over affirmative action, particularly with a strong economy and low unemployment.

“The angry white male is not going to spend his spare time at a card table in a shopping center [gathering signatures] if he’s got a job, nor is he likely to be all that angry,” says pollster Robert Joffee of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research.

Still, Slade says he thinks the issue will make a comeback in Florida in the year 2000, but he and others suggest the issue is just too controversial and too hot to touch in the wake of the high-profile California campaign. Many say that instead of building momentum for a presidential bid, Wilson suffered a backlash of public opinion for his support of Proposition 209.

“A lot of people considered him a front-runner [for president] and that issue quickly became a noose around his neck, and it hurt him in terms of raising money,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “That was kind of the first blinking red light that maybe this issue wasn’t what it looked to be.”

Now, Republicans don’t want to repeat Wilson’s mistake in such crucial electorates as Texas and Florida.

“[California’s effort] had kind of a hard edge to it, I thought, and somebody’s got to figure out how to pursue pure equity without it being ugly,” Slade says.

That didn’t happen in Texas, where a strongly worded anti-affirmative action initiative went before the city’s voters in November.

George W. Bush and other Republican leaders stayed away while President Clinton and Democratic stalwarts bashed the proposal. Voters rejected the initiative 55 percent to 45 percent.

The silence from Republicans in Texas irked many affirmative action opponents. The American Civil Rights Coalition, a Sacramento, Calif., spiritual headquarters for such anti-affirmative action initiatives, wrote to Gov. Bush to enlist his support but received no response.

“Many Republicans fear a backlash from voters on this issue,” says coalition spokeswoman Ann Gonzalez Kramer. “The problem is that they’re not willing to have the courage to stand up for what they believe in, but President Clinton had no problem going to Houston to stand up against the initiative.”

Kramer says she disagrees with Bush’s statement that the initiative is not necessary in Florida.

State and local government programs in Florida have many of the features decried by opponents of race preferences.

State agencies, universities and many of the larger local governments, including Tampa and Hillsborough County, set minority contracting goals that affirmative action critics consider synonymous to quotas. A few other governments mandate minority “set-asides” for contracts.

Some state universities also set goals for how many women and minorities they will hire, and schools can consider race and gender as factors in admissions.

Gady Epstein covers state government and can be reached at (850) 222-8382.