Ending affirmative action proves harder than it looks

A fierce US debate over racial preferences storms Florida, where backers of the policy are mobilizing.

When Florida Gov. Jeb Bush set out to end race and gender preferences in college admissions and state contracts last year, he called his plan One Florida.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking on Mr. Bush's part. But his anti-affirmative action plan has instead spotlighted two, quite distinct, Floridas. On one side are those who favor the use of state preferences to boost opportunities for minorities and women, and on the other are those who oppose their continued use.

It is an increasingly acrimonious rift, one that is firmly establishing Florida as the nation's next major battleground over affirmative action.

And, analysts say, one that could complicate the Florida campaign of Bush's brother, George, in his anticipated run for the White House this fall.

Nowhere has the divide in the state been more apparent than in the capital, Tallahassee, earlier this week. On Tuesday, as the governor delivered his State of the State address to a largely supportive Republican-controlled state legislature, an estimated 11,000 protesters from across Florida stood outside in the sun-baked heat denouncing the governor as an enemy of the civil rights movement.

Many waved placards reading "Jeb Crow," and "Pharaoh Bush."

But if the governor was worried, he gave no indication.

Florida Republicans, including the governor, are counting on the support of a "silent majority" of Floridians presumed to be supportive of Bush's One Florida plan.

And some analysts suggest that, if the Republican Party holds firm on the issue, it stands to gain from crossover Democrats and independents who are also opposed to affirmative action.

But other analysts say that view is overly optimistic.

"Jeb Bush may have just cooked it for his brother in Florida," says Randall Berg, a Miami civil rights lawyer. "I think he grossly underestimated the animosity he would generate from minorities and women."

Voters narrowly split on issue

While polls last year suggested that an overwhelming majority of Floridians oppose the use of racial preferences in public education, public employment, and public contracts, other more recent polls show that likely voters in the state may be more closely divided on the issue.

A statewide poll released on Sunday by the Lakeland Ledger says that 44 percent of Florida voters support Bush's One Florida plan, while 40 percent prefer retaining affirmative action. Sixteen percent had no opinion.

Bush's One Florida initiative grew out of an attempt by the governor to sidestep a much more sweeping anti-affirmative-action campaign by a black California businessman, Ward Connerly.

The Connerly campaign, a statewide ballot initiative, would rewrite Florida's Constitution to bar any use of racial or gender preferences by the state government, including college admissions.

Mr. Connerly, an opponent of affirmative action who has taken his message on the road, has waged similar, successful campaigns in California and Washington State.

Connerly's plan is currently before the Florida Supreme Court, which is considering whether the ballot questions are written with the necessary clear and concise language to avoid confusing voters.

If the court approves the wording, the measure could appear on the November ballot in Florida. If not, the ballot initiative may be postponed until the 2002 election.

Nonetheless, because of Bush's One Florida plan, affirmative action is certain to be a major issue in November regardless of the fate of Connerly's plan.

Political fight brewing

Ironically, the governor was motivated in part by a desire to avoid a contentious political fight this fall that might alienate a substantial number of voters and rally Florida Democrats at the exact moment his brother, George, will be seeking to appeal to a broad cross section of Florida voters in his anticipated contest with Vice President Al Gore.

Mr. Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, has already declared his solid support for continued reliance on affirmative action in Florida.

So the stage is set for a no-holds-barred debate on the issue this fall.

Jeb Bush says his One Florida plan will result in more opportunities for women and minorities in Florida.

The governor has asked Floridians to judge him by the results of his programs, not by the rhetoric of his opponents.

But many in the state, particularly minorities and women, aren't buying it.

And it remains unclear how the issue will play out in November.

"I think it is premature to say that people are overwhelmingly supportive of eliminating affirmative action programs in the state," says Jim Kane, political analyst with the independent polling firm Florida Voter.

"People are somewhat ambivalent about the issue. It depends on how we ask the question," he says.

Question of semantics

For example, a poll Mr. Kane conducted in late January found 54 percent of likely voters supporting a ban on state preferences for minorities.

But 58 percent of prospective voters in the same poll said they were in favor of state-mandated affirmative-action plans.

"The simple answer is that not many people understand what they are responding to [when they answer poll questions]," Kane says.

Kevin Nguyen of the American Civil Rights Coalition, Ward Connerly's organization in Sacramento, Calif., says Florida Republicans have little to worry about.

"This issue energizes a Democratic base that is already in the Democrats' camp, but it does not move the Democratic Party closer to the middle ground where most of the electorate is," he says.

"If anything, the Democratic embrace of current affirmative-action policies makes it the fringe party."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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