Jeb Bush with wife and sister-in-law

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–Women may have the last word on who gets to be Florida’s next governor.

With the race between Republican incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush and Democratic challenger Bill McBride coming down to the wire, women–who typically turn out in greater numbers at the polls–may be the voting block that swings the election.

Bush is trying to attract female voters by touting an increase in the number of women at the highest levels of state government since he was elected in 1998. Under the governor’s leadership, Florida has jumped from the 46th state in the nation for the number of women appointed to top policy positions to No. 2, according to campaign spokesman Todd Harris. Currently, 52 percent of Florida’s state policy leaders are women. Since taking office, Bush also has appointed 55 women to the judiciary.

An analysis by Women’s Enews has found that the gains women have made are incremental, if salary is the gauge. When Bush took office, only 24 percent of the 1,225 state workers making more than $75,000 a year were women. Three years later, the ranks of government workers making more than $75,000 swelled to 1,976, but just 28 percent of them were women.

Women fared less well at the lowest levels of the pay scale, according to data in the 1998 and 2001 Annual Workforce Report compiled by the state Department of Management Services. Women in 1998 comprised 66 percent of the 50,086 state employees making less than $25,000 per year. Now they comprise 75 percent of the 28,714 employees with the lowest earnings.

A Sept. 22-24 Mason-Dixon Florida poll showed men preferred Bush over McBride 53 percent to 41 percent, while women preferred McBride 45 percent to the 44 percent for Bush. A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll a few days later showed 47 percent of likely women voters favored McBride, while 46 percent backed Bush.

When pollsters concentrated solely on women who worked outside the home, however, they found McBride leading significantly, with 56 percent of those women saying they’d vote for him compared to 35 percent who said they’d vote for Bush.

Overall, the Mason-Dixon poll of 625 registered voters showed Bush leading 49 percent to McBride’s 43 percent with 8 percent of the respondents undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll showed Bush leading 50 percent to McBride’s 44 percent, with 6 percent undecided. These pollsters interviewed 800 registered voters and the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

More than Half of ‘Women for Bush’ Are Political Appointees

Earlier this month, Bush tried to lure more of those precious votes to his camp by hosting a “Women for Jeb” news event. Led by first lady Laura Bush, the governor’s sister-in-law, Jeb Bush introduced 18 women he described as being from “all walks of life” and “another example of the growing support for Gov. Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan,” according to a news release promoting the event.

“For the first time in Florida’s history, women and minorities are succeeding like never before, and that is a result of the leadership of Gov. Bush,” said Lee-En Chung, founder and president of the Sarasota-based Ivy Ventures Inc. “That is why I support him and why all Floridians should.”

Over the last four years, state agencies have increased funding to businesses owned by women from $150 million to $348 million–an increase of more than 130 percent, according to the Bush campaign.

Ten of the 18 women standing with Bush, like Chung, are previous Bush appointees to powerful advisory committees or financially lucrative state jobs. Bush appointed Chung to the Construction Industry Licensing Board, overseeing the multibillion-dollar building trades, in 1999.

The women’s roles in state government were not disclosed during the news conference.

Several others are supporters, many of them from the GOP, who have appeared with him at other media events. Those supporters range from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, to former National Rifle Association President Marion Hammer to 2000 Florida Teacher of the Year Stephanie King, a teacher at Design and Architecture Senior High School in Miami.

“I am grateful to have the support of Florida’s mothers, wives, sisters and daughters,” Bush said in introducing his new coalition. “The demands on women today are enormous. From work to family to community, women are doing more then ever before.”

Critics Say Bush Policies Do Not Benefit, Support Women

Democrats immediately took issue with Bush’s words.

“Tell that to Judge Kathleen Kearney–whose salary was 75 percent of the salary her successor, Jerry Regier, negotiated as secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill. “Regier’s salary is $150,000. Kathleen Kearney’s salary was $113,000. How does Jeb Bush explain this wage disparity to his Women for Jeb group?”

Democrats say Bush’s report card is no better on other issues of concern to women. He opposes abortion rights and also has cut critical funding in areas that women care about.

They say that nearly 40 percent of Bush’s line-item vetoes during an emergency legislative session to cut the budget were for programs targeted to women, children and families, some $3 million in all. Among them, the governor vetoed $179,260 for the Domestic Violence Task Force, $1.3 million for Take Stock in Children, $1 million for Big Brothers Big Sisters and $500,000 for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Banfill said.

But Bush points out that since he was elected, 90 percent more children will have access to the state’s publicly funded health insurance programs, a total of more than 1.5 million children enrolled by next summer. His commitment to recruit 200,000 mentors has already started pairing children with adults in the public schools. He signed the Earnhardt Family Protection Act into law, creating the first mandatory jail term for domestic violence and generating millions of dollars for domestic violence shelters through criminal fines. And he’s increased funding for education by more than $3 billion, a figure his critics say barely keeps up with student growth.

And there’s at least woman who unabashedly supports him:

“Jeb is leading Florida in the right direction by making education, healthcare, and public safety his top priorities,” said Laura Bush. “These issues are especially important to Florida’s women.”

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

State of Florida AnnualWorkforce Reports:

Jeb for Governor
“Bush Campaign Unveils ‘Women for Jeb’ Coalition”:

Bill McBride for Governor 2002: