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Jeb and the Black Vote

There is no more urgent task for Gov. Jeb Bush than to emerge from the presidential imbroglio with a bold new agenda that focuses more attention on his goals for his next two years than the events of the last two months focused on his family ties.

He will have that chance when he releases his budget this month. As he has done with his two previous budgets, Bush will use the opportunity to do more than announce his proposed spending plan. It will be his blueprint for the last half of his term and the document upon which his claim to re-election will be judged.

Bush's advisers are hoping Floridians are ready to put aside presidential politics and take a serious look at the goals of the younger Bush. Among them: Reform civil service, cut spending, create a targeted health insurance program, streamline growth management and make developers shoulder more of the cost of growth. That's right: The Republican governor, a developer, wants developers to pay more.

But even that brazen notion may not be enough to help Bush escape the cloud that hangs low in the aftermath of the presidential contest. For the rest of his term, the governor may move on, but the 2000 election will follow.

Democrats, for one, will make sure of it. One simple fact has buoyed their optimism: Vice President Al Gore made inroads onto the Florida governor's turf primarily because of a huge African-American turnout. That turnout was fueled by a massive voter registration and get-out-the-vote effort that was energized by Gov. Jeb Bush's attempts to end affirmative action last year.

The same organizers of the 10,000-strong march on the Capitol last spring assembled the statewide campaign to encourage African-Americans, Hispanics and women to go to the polls to protest the governor's One Florida plan, which ended quotas in state government contracting and university admissions.

Dubbed the "Save Florida" campaign and financed in part by the AFL-CIO, the effort underscored how vital black voters are to Democrats. "Fifty percent more African-Americans voted this year than in 1996," says Jim Kane, political analyst for the independent Florida Voter poll, citing surveys of voters leaving the polling places. "They went from 10% of the electorate to 15%, and close to 95% of their vote went to Al Gore. Democrats have to feel good about that. In 2002, they are going to look back at that and say we're going to need to reproduce those efforts when we run against Jeb Bush."

Some have already begun. At a rally outside the Florida Supreme Court during the height of the legal wars over the presidential battle, Jesse Jackson was the first to pin blame on Florida's governor. "All this crisis has taken place, like no other state, on John Ellis Bush's watch," the civil rights leader declared. House Democratic leader Lois Frankel followed: "This entire thing is being orchestrated by the Bush campaign and Gov. Jeb Bush," she repeatedly told the press and the nation.

The governor can overcome these perceptions, but he must start early, says Kane, the pollster. "Jeb Bush has been hurt by all of this," he says. "I'm not of the opinion that he's mortally wounded."

Kane disputes estimates claiming that Bush received 9% of the African-American vote in 1998. "That's a myth," he says. "It's more like 1%. That doesn't mean his strategy was flawed in any way. By trying to bring African-Americans to the Republican side, he sent a message out to more independent voters who tend to be fairly liberal and moderate whites. They used it as a yardstick."

The next election will have a different dynamic, Kane says. Bush's policies could prompt African-Americans to vote against Bush, rather than for a Democrat -- as happened with Gore. "That helps them be energized," he explains. "That difference may be enough to put Jeb Bush's campaign in a very different direction if there's a quality Democrat out there."

But two years is a long time in Florida politics, and the political landscape in 2002 could look very different from the way it did even in 2000. "Jeb Bush's life is, at this moment, a living nightmare as it stands to the election," says U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Broward County Democrat. "But the Democrat's nightmare is, you have to have somebody to beat him and, when it comes to the field, the Democrats do not have a charismatic figure that will appeal to the great unrest."

Hastings believes U.S. Sen. Bob Graham is the only formidable prospect Democrats have. While Attorney General Bob Butterworth would be credible, Hastings believes he "would not be formidable." (Hastings adds that if Graham decides not to seek re-election, Hastings would run for the Senate job.)

Hastings also warns that "demographics in Florida are shifting" so quickly that comparisons to previous races will soon be useless. He recalls campaigning at a church in Lauderhill brimming with 1,400 people. "I've been 38 years in south Florida. I'm 64 years old. I did not know by name five of those people in that church, and that's in my district," he says. "My district has changed to that degree largely because of Caribbean constituents."

Kane agrees that statewide politicians will have to adjust their approach to account for the influx of Haitians, Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics who "make the playing field a lot more even for Democrats." Adds Hastings: "They're going to have to do a lot more than show up at a black church on Sunday."

Hastings never endorsed Bush, but many prominent blacks who supported him against Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay in 1998 say the governor quit calling once he was elected. "I personally felt abandoned and used," said Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor of the 7,000-member Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee who campaigned for the governor in 1998. "One Florida was a major disappointment."

Holmes said he still believes Bush has the "potential to be one of our greatest governors" but he needs "objective, constructive criticism. You can't push things on people."

Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, says that through sheer numbers the legislative black caucus could now more than ever get the governor's ear. The caucus has a record 15 members in the House and six in the Senate, a large enough voting block to use its leverage in close votes. "Right now, the governor needs an aggressive agenda that incorporates the needs of all the people in this state, not just the ones that voted for his brother," Lawson says. "He needs to reach out."