TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–The best candidate to beat Florida Gov. Jeb Bush could be a woman. And a re-energized coalition of women and minority men that resisted Bush’s anti-affirmative action efforts and voted Democratic last November could help her win.

Several factors could combine in 2002 to put the first woman ever in the Florida governor’s office. Among them: bitter feelings lingering from the 2000 presidential election, Bush’s successful push to limit affirmative action, the fact that he is the younger brother of President George W. Bush and recent changes to Florida election law.

Political analysts were further intrigued when former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno indicated she might be interested in the job. And Democrats’ hopes were bolstered by a Miami Herald survey showing that Reno, who has not even announced her candidacy, trailed Bush just 43 percent to 49 percent.

Reno, 62, is one of two women and more than a half-dozen Democrats who are lining up for what could be a grudge match over the disputed 2000 election and a major report card on President Bush’s first two years in office. Florida’s election is expected to play out on a national stage, and record campaign contributions for both sides are expected to pour in from all over the country.

The other possible woman candidate is House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, 53, a West Palm Beach Democrat who has served 13 years in the statehouse, and seven years ago ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

Analysts, however, are uncertain whether a woman could win.

“It’s a long shot, but it’s not an impossibility,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a consultant for Jeb Bush’s transition team after his victory in 1998.

Florida has a considerably larger number of women in public office than other southern states, MacManus said. As more and more women enter the pipeline, they tend to serve in the state legislature, then move to a cabinet position. There are more women voters in Florida than in other states as well, and, with two-thirds of the population born elsewhere, Florida tends to be less traditional than the true southern state, she noted.

Resentments Over Florida Election Debacle Could Hurt Jeb Bush

Florida’s 2000 presidential election became the focus of a national controversy because of the razor-thin difference between the votes for Bush and then Vice President Al Gore. Election protests and recounts dragged on for 36 days before the U.S. Supreme Court put a stop to it, essentially awarding the election to Bush. The official count showed Bush defeated Gore by 537 votes out of some 6 million votes cast.

Jeb Bush, in a 1999 executive order, did away with affirmative action in state school admissions and in the awarding of state contracts. His anti-affirmative action One Florida plan was the catalyst for a statewide “Arrive With Five” voter registration drive by a coalition that included the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, environmental and public interest groups and others. Record numbers of minority voters went to the polls in November, most of them voting for Gore.

The coalition announced this month that it now plans a massive voter education drive in addition to the registration effort for the 2002 election.

If a woman were to take the helm in Florida, she would join just 20 other women in American history to lead a state. Five women are currently governors–the largest cohort ever. They are Republicans Jane Dee Hull of Arizona, Judy Martz of Montana and Jane Swift of Massachusetts and Democrats Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

Women haven’t had an easy time achieving governorships, especially in the South, because the top job often is seen as requiring a toughness that many women are perceived as lacking.

For Women, Governorships Have Proven Difficult to Attain

“Governorships, aside from the presidency, have proven the hardest nut for women to crack,” said Laura Liswood, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and secretary general of Council of Women World Leaders.

Liswood said women have made great strides in filling national legislative positions, and some federal Cabinet posts.

Traditional stereotypes are harder to overcome, however, in races for a statewide executive position such as governor, where the leader must respond to crises and be tough on budget and other issues, Liswood said. Generally, the more powerful a governor’s office, the less likely a woman has held the post, she added.

In Arizona, for example, the governor doesn’t have much power and the job doesn’t pay very well. “OK, so we can let the woman do that–it’s not that important,” Liswood said, stating what she believed to be the message from the voters.

Reno’s experience as attorney general and her reputation for toughness could help her overcome stereotypes of women not up to the tough task of governing, Liswood added. But Frankel, without Reno’s statewide name recognition and strong reputation, would have a harder time, she said. Before she attained national prominence in 1992, Reno was elected four times as state attorney for Miami-Dade County.

Reno Could Be a Lightning Rod for a Fight on the National Stage

Reno, because of her identification with the Clinton administration, would be a lightning rod for a national fight, both analysts said.

“There’s so much pent-up anxiety spilling over from the 2000 election,” MacManus said.

“This is going to be more of a (referendum on) Bush in the White House,” Liswood added. “It will recycle old issues with different players. There will be a lot of national visibility that you don’t often get.”

Several recent changes to Florida law also have changed the dynamics of the gubernatorial race. A constitutional amendment passed in 1998 allows candidates for governor to run without announcing a running mate until after the primary election. The candidates for governor and lieutenant governor will still run as a ticket, but the change will allow the gubernatorial candidate to pick a second-in-command from among the unsuccessful primary candidates.

And there will be more primary candidates, thanks to a new law that does away with the second primary, or runoff election, for the 2002 election only. That means the parties will support more candidates, since it takes just a simple majority to win. Previous law required the top two candidates to face off in an expensive runoff election if neither could get the 50-percent-plus-one vote required to win.

Other possible Democratic candidates, in addition to Reno and Frankel, are U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride and former North Florida Congressman Pete Peterson, who recently announced that he is resigning as ambassador to Vietnam and moving to Tallahassee.

“It’s a wide-open race with a great field of candidates,” said Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe. “I support anybody who wants to beat Jeb, but it’s early.”

The Miami Herald telephone poll on May 22 to 24 of 600 likely voters also found Gov. Bush’s popularity at an all-time low, with 40 percent disapproving of the way he’s doing his job. But Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, challenged those figures and said the party’s own polling has shown Bush has never slipped below a 30-percent disapproval rating.

Bush Says He Will Decide in June Whether to Run in 2002

Although Florida political watchers expect Bush to run for a second term, he has consistently said he’s going to talk it over with his family first and make up his mind next month. When asked Wednesday how he’d feel about running against Reno, Bush responded: “Give me a break. I said I’d decide in June.”

Bush’s One Florida plan still draws criticism for doing away with a provision to set aside 5 percent of state contracts for women and minority men and with admissions policies for the state university system designed to increase the presence of minority students. While Bush says there are now more minorities and women doing business with the state than ever, results on the education front have been mixed. That component of One Florida has been challenged by the NAACP and the case is pending in the state’s First District Court of Appeal.

The coalition that opposed One Florida and got out the vote last November is looking ahead to the 2002 election and planning an education and voter registration drive.

State Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said that new voters’ confusion last November caused thousands of incorrectly filled-out ballots to be discarded, enough ballots to have changed the election results–in favor of Gore. Because of the problems, voters will be more eager than ever to get back to the polls next year, Meek said. Many black voters also complained they were discouraged from voting, and then many of their votes were not counted.

“You have Floridians that to this day don’t know if their vote was counted,” Meek said. “That will carry over into the future and they’re going to make sure their vote is counted.”

Liswood, however, doesn’t believe that anger over the affirmative action issue is big enough to send a woman to the governor’s office in 2002.

“I don’t think she’s going to drive that big a wedge with the affirmative action issue, I don’t see that as the campaign issue that will win,” Liswood said. “If there’s still a fair amount of residue of bitterness around President Bush, that could help.”

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist covering state government in Tallahassee, Fla.

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