By JOHN REINAN of The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA – Facing a roomful of minority police officers, many whose careers have gotten a boost from affirmative action, Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday gave a spirited defense of his controversial One Florida program.
Bush’s address to a state conference of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives was arranged last August, months before he introduced his plan to end affirmative action in state education and contracting.
But he didn’t shy away from raising the issue before about 300 law enforcement leaders from across the state meeting at the Holiday Inn on Busch Boulevard.
“I have been thinking about this a lot, praying about it a lot,” Bush said. “I have a burden on me that I haven’t felt as governor.
“It has been difficult advocating a policy that will expand opportunities for minorities,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about facts when you’re dealing with generations of mistreatment, of discrimination.
“But I will continue to do it in spite of the controversy.”
One Florida would end affirmative action in state contracting and admissions to state universities. The plan has prompted opposition from many minority groups in Florida, including a sit-in last month in the governor’s office by two black lawmakers.
While acknowledging the debate, Bush didn’t waver.
“I’m doing what I think is right,” he said. “This state does not need to use set-asides and quotas to embrace diversity. We don’t need to use methods that tear us apart.”
Bush said that he has appointed more blacks, Hispanics and women to posts than his predecessors combined.
Bush also spoke of the importance of crime prevention and making Florida a safe place to live. The audience listened attentively and applauded when the governor finished.
The conference focused on the prevention of violence, and before the dinner meeting organizers sought to downplay the race issue.
“I’m concerned with him helping us to prevent violence,” said Tina Wright, a Tampa police major who is the group’s state president. “That’s my goal. We are nonpolitical.”
Others said it is too soon to talk of ending affirmative action.
“I’m a product of affirmative action,” said Sam Jones, a Tampa police captain. “Obviously, I believe the time has not come when affirmative action has leveled the playing field.
“But as a police officer, I’ve had to separate my personal and professional lives. My personal position on his policy of One Florida is something I have to separate.”
Bush said his plan will work.
“Take it to the bank, a lead-pipe cinch: If we move forward on this, there are going to be more African- Americans in our state university system this September than there are now,” he said.
“And if you don’t believe me, come see me and sit in my office.”
John Reinan can be reached at (813) 259-8144 or [email protected]