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Affirmative Action Fight Embroils Florida Politics

Saturday, May 6, 2000

Tallahassee, Fla.--Sit-ins, rallies, a march of 11,000 up the hill to the Capitol. No. This is not the old days.

Subhead: 
Tallahassee, Fla.--Sit-ins, rallies, a march of 11,000 up the hill to the Capitol. No. This is not the old days.
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This spring, the state's capital seemed to be in the middle of a time-warp, more the 1960s than the year 2000, as voices of hundreds of protesters singing the civil rights classic "We Shall Overcome," reverberated throughout the Capitol dome.

The uproar had nothing to do with international politics or the custody of a six-year-old boy. Florida is embroiled in a wide-ranging war over affirmative action this year with battles on several fronts.

Ward Connerly has launched a statewide anti-affirmative action campaign here, gaining 1,000s of signatures and pushing to be on the ballot in the fall. Connerly, an African-American California business man, is responsible for the successful anti-affirmative action ballot initiative in his home state.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups and protestors are challenging Gov. Jeb Bush's executive order, called One Florida, that bans gender and race preferences in state contracts and the state university system.

One Florida removes specific quotas and price preferences and replaces them with what Bush calls a "proactive" philosophy that critics say relies more on trust than on law.

State Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, 60-year-old black woman with vivid memories of the civil rights struggles, has watched the proceedings with a bit of disbelief.

"I've seen a lot of this. But I didn't think I'd see it in the year 2000," Holzendorf said. "The governor has begun dismantling all of the gains that have been made this century."

Protests organized by the Florida chapters of the AFL-CIO, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women culminated March 7, the opening day of the state's 60-day legislative session, with the biggest march in the state's history.

While thousands perspired outside in the broiling Florida sun, a somewhat nervous governor, in his State of the State Address, assured the mostly white, mostly male, Armani suited crowd inside the air-conditioned Capitol that his plan would leave nobody behind.

Many black and female legislators thought differently and chose to join their constituents outside that day, rather than participate in some of the opening day festivities.

That same day, in the Florida Supreme Court, the Florida Civil Rights Initiative, a political action committee backed by Connerly, sought court approval to be on the ballot during a presidential election year.

And in the legislature, a bill is being pushed through that creates stronger anti-discrimination language but doesn't re-enact key affirmative action goals that are set to expire in 2001.

For example, in current law, agencies are encouraged, but not required, to award 4 percent of construction contracts to African American-owned firms, 6 percent for Hispanic-owned companies, and 11 percent for women-owned businesses.

Connerly's initiative, if approved by voters, would amend the Declaration of Rights, in Article I of the Florida Constitution, to bar the state government from treating people differently based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public education, employment, or contracting. Three other more specific proposed amendments deal only with race.

Opponents say the playing field is not yet level in Florida-that women and minorities do not yet enjoy equal access to the corridors of power to bid for and land state contracts and girls and minority children still do not receive equal education in the early grades. Therefore, a requirement for the state to reach out to women and minorities is still needed, they say.

After listening to more than an hour of arguments, the court gave no indication when it will rule. If justices approve the ballot language, supporters will have to obtain about 400,000 more voter signatures by August 8 to be on the ballot this fall. Otherwise, they will have to wait until 2002.

Bush's One Florida plan is widely seen as an attempt to head off the Connerly ballot initiative. The governor said he wanted a more politically acceptable alternative in place in case the initiative was approved by voters.

"We have a respectful disagreement," Bush said about the advocates ofaffirmative action. "I think we have a common objective here. We have a respectful -- or at least I'm trying to be respectful -- disagreement on the approach."

The governor's education plan replaces preferences with a guarantee of college admission to the top 20 percent of every high school class that successfully completes an academic course load.

"There's not been a single challenge filed to what we have now. The Connerly initiative may not even make it to the ballot. What's the rush?" asks Democratic state senator Kendrick Meek.

The NAACP and NOW have filed a challenge with the state's Division of Administrative Hearings against a portion of the plan because it does away with race and gender preferences in university admissions.

The plan's opponents say minorities are so lacking in the state's biggest universities that they should be held to a system that specifies a percentage of minorities to be admitted each year.

Administrative Law Judge Charles Adams is expected to rule on the protest in late June.

Some supporters of affirmative action such as Kendrick Meek, believe the state should take its chances battling the initiative rather than surrendering after the first salvo.

Meek, along with Rep. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, and Tallahassee area NOW member Barbara DeVane-Gilberg, made national news in January when they took over an office in Bush's Capitol suite and refused to leave for 25 hours. Police dragged DeVane-Gilberg out of the office; Meek and Hill agreed to leave after they were promised a series of public hearings on One Florida.

The hearings themselves became fodder for the television cameras, with thousands turning out, primarily to criticize One Florida in remarks that often got personal. Bush refused to abandon the plan, but did back off from a few of the more sweeping changes in the face of opposition. The governor continues to insist that the majority of Floridians approve of his state contract and university orders, a sentiment supported somewhat by independent polls.Meek does not bow to the polls, however.

"When it comes down to equal opportunity for women and minorities, there's no expiration date on it," Meek said. "Women and minorities historically have staying power - we're not going away on this one and that's the bottom line."