TALLAHASSEE--The efforts of women and minority men determined to save affirmative action have put this state's 25 electoral votes in play and could even determine the outcome of the national elections.
Political activists and elected minority officials have launched two separate initiatives with the same goal that, if successful, could tip the close race.
In addition to a close presidential race, there are two tight congressional races that pit women Democrats against Republican men. Longtime state Rep. Elaine Bloom (D-Miami Beach) is running strong against incumbent Congressman Clay Shaw; former Orange County Chairwoman Linda Chapin is also gaining on Ric Keller from Orlando.
Polls show that both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are locked in a tight showdown. Earlier in the year, the conventional wisdom had Bush counting Florida in his sure-win column because his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is enormously popular.
However, an intense and well-orchestrated opposition to Jeb Bush's "One Florida" plan to dismantle affirmative action programs in state government and college admissions has now been transformed into a state-wide, get-out-the-vote campaign among the two key constituencies likely to vote for Gore: women and minority men.
More than 11,000 people took part in last spring's "March on Tallahassee" to protest the anti-affirmative action plan, the largest protest in the state's history.
At that time, groups vowed to "remember in November." And in order to translate that protest into election language, influential minority political leaders--state Sen. Kendrick Meek, state Rep. Tony Hill, as well as activist Barbara DeVane-Gilberg--have initiated what they hope will be the most aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign targeted at women and minority men in state history.
It's called "Arrive With 5" and the concept is simple: Take the day off from work or school, take five friends or associates along and vote in state, congressional and Presidential elections.
The second phase of the Arrive With 5 campaign begins this week in Tallahassee. Meek, Hill and DeVane-Gilberg begin a two-week tour crisscrossing the state to encourage registered voters not only to vote on Election Day but also to take advantage of absentee ballots and vote early.
"We want to say we have not forgotten," said Charesse Chester, an aide to state Sen. Meek. "We want to make sure the momentum of March 7 continues through Election Day."
DeVane-Gilberg has been a political activist since 1964. A sprite senior citizen who "cut her teeth on the civil rights movement," she is now spending the time drumming up support for candidates who are pro-women, pro-family, pro-equal pay, and who believe in health care choice--from the choice of physicians to reproductive freedom.
With nearly 35 years' experience under her belt, she has extensive networks and is plugged into women's organizations across the state. She works closely with the Florida Women's Leadership Council, the American Association of University Women, the Florida Silver Haired Legislature, the AARP in Florida and a bevy of others encouraging women to get out and vote.
Sometimes she appears with Hill and Meek, other times she's alone, but she always stresses the Arrive With 5 message.
"I've handed out thousands of these cards," she said, noting that she tells women to go beyond the five-person commitment and go to the polls with "multiples of five."
The Florida Women's Leadership Council--an organization of 50 or so women's associations from across the state--is striving to get 66 percent of female registered voters to the polls on Election Day, DeVane-Gilberg said.
"We are on the move again," she said, adding that given her druthers, she would have made the target higher than two-thirds. "We are going to carry the day for the state of Florida. We are going to win--'we' meaning the people and not the special interests."
In the first stages of the campaign, churches and community centers were targeted and roughly 90,000 cards requesting that participants make a written agreement to go to the polls were distributed. Arrive With 5 executive director Oscar Branyon II said, to date, he had received 4,000 returned cards.
While urging the importance of voting, the Arrive With 5 campaign hammers home the message that affirmative action programs still are needed and that there must be pay equity for women and minority men. While Arrive With 5 representatives repeat the message that the campaign drive is non-partisan, the issues Arrive With 5 supports have been supported traditionally by the Democrats.
A Florida Department of State breakdown shows that there were 3,673,844 registered Democrats and 3,327,688 registered Republicans and 1,258,064 registered voters with "no party affiliation."
There are no voter breakdowns by gender, but the state does identify registered voters by race. That report shows that more than 6.6 million voters are white and 888,487 voters are black. More than 734,000 voters identified their race as "other" and nearly 180,000 voters did not provide the information or did not know their race.
Lance deHaven-Smith, Associate Director of the Florida Institute of Government and expert in state politics, said races traditionally have been close in Florida. "And this is likely to be one of the closest."
He said that the key to victory is voter turnout, which varies greatly. For instance, in 1994 when the late Gov. Lawton Chiles edged Jeb Bush in the gubernatorial campaign, voter turnout was 65 percent. Chiles won by a mere 64,000 votes in an election in which 4 million Floridians went to the polls. But only 47 percent of registered voters showed up in 1998 when Bush beat out Chiles' Lt. Governor, Buddy McKay.
"If turnout is high," deHaven-Smith said, "Democrats win. If low, Republicans win."
Florida NOW President Toni Van Pelt is spearheading a separate initiative, a discussion group called Women's Dialogue--Keeping the Door Open.
She calls these question and answer sessions the most fulfilling work she's ever done. She stresses the importance of affirmative action programs by reminding women that eliminating preferences in state contracting will affect female-owned businesses.
"We're doing this work and working so hard because we know we can make a difference," said Van Pelt.
The stakes go beyond the election, though, deHaven-Smith warned. If they fail at getting out the vote, he said, "It is unlikely that they will be treated very seriously in the future.
"If they succeed, however, women and African-Americans could become constituencies to be feared, making them even more important than they are now in state policy making," he said.
Christine Jordan Sexton is a free-lance writer based in Tallahassee.