Affirmative Action Battle Hits Sunshine State

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, pp. 19-20

More than 11,000 students, teachers, union leaders, and grandmothers marched to the Florida State Capitol on March 8, 2000 to register their opposition to a two-pronged assault on affirmative action: Sacramento businessman Ward Connerly's latest state initiative drive and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" plan. The Florida fight is being shaped by presidential election-year politics and spurring fresh activism in the Sunshine State.

Recognizing that affirmative action will not be easily eliminated through state legislative action (see Amy Wood's articles in Southern Changes, Spring 1998 and Summer 1999), opponents of affirmative action have sought other means-initiatives and executive orders. Florida is facing both.

The "Florida Civil Rights Initiative" (FCRI) is actually a package of four constitutional amendments that would end consideration of race in overcoming discrimination in state hiring, contracting, and college admissions. FCRI has gathered 10 percent of the requisite signatures. A judicial review in mid-April will consider two questions: whether the initiative deals with a single subject and whether the ballot language is clear. Though Michigan, Oregon, and Colorado are potential targets, Florida is the only state where Connerly's organization, the American Civil Rights Institute, is attempting such an initiative this year.

After winning in Washington state in 1998 where nearly 89 percent of the population is white, Connerly had several reasons to choose Florida for the next attempt to spread his anti-affirmative action ballot campaign. One of the few Southern states with a citizen initiative process (others are Mississippi and Arkansas), Florida boasts multiracial demographics much like California, where the "California Civil Rights Initiative" succeeded in 1996. The state also ranks high in the number of elderly voters, who tend to show less support for affirmative action remedies.

A win in this heavily urbanized Southern state with a large African-American population would be significant. Said Connerly in an on-line interview March 27, Florida is a


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"hotly contested state in the presidential race...[being the] fourth largest state with all those other factors that I mentioned is tremendous."

Governor Jeb Bush, whose brother Governor George W. Bush of Texas has all but secured the Republican nomination for president, has positioned the "One Florida" plan as an alternative to the outright ban that would result from Connerly's initiative. Like the initiative, the Bush program targets state hiring, public contracting and public education. A controversial ingredient in the plan is the "Talented 20" program, which guarantees admission to the state's public colleges and universities to students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their classes. But Florida colleges already have an open admissions policy, and some of the low-achieving schools with high minority populations purported to benefit from the program do not offer all of the nineteen college prep courses the students need to qualify.

Some believe that the Bush plan was motivated by the fear that the Connerly initiative would greatly increase election turnout by women and minorities. Bush's "One Florida" plan "was generated clearly to be an effort to minimize female and minority voters at the polls in November," said Leon Russell, past president of the Florida NAACP Conference of Branches.

Tallahassee Sit-in

When Bush proposed "One Florida," he didn't bank on the vigor and militancy of the opposition, said Russell. Utilizing a variety of tactics-a sit-in, hearings, protests, and legislative strategies-the new movement in Florida is working to retain fairness programs. State Sen. Kendrick Meek (D-Miami) and Rep. Tony Hill (D-Jacksonville) sat in at Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan's office January 18-19 in Tallahassee, forcing Gov. Jeb Bush to delay his executive order ending affirmative action. The sit-in brought public hearings before a Select House-Senate committee in Tallahassee, Tampa, and Miami. A Board of Regents decision in Orlando February 17 to pass the educational provisions of the Bush plan faces a state administrative challenge brought by the NAACP to be heard in April.

Bush has already altered (in the cabinet departments he controls) the way state contracts are awarded. White-owned firms already do 98 percent of the state contracting, according State Senator Daryl Jones (D-South Dade), a member of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators. Commercial contractors, represented by the Florida Associated General Contractors Council, are supporting the Bush plan and the ballot initiative.

A broad coalition, Floridians Representing Equity and Equality (FREE), is taking the offensive. FREE helped to organize the March 8 rally and is gathering signatures for a pro-affirmative action ballot measure, possibly next year. Legislative proposals include two wage equity bills that make up the Fair Pay Act of 2000, but legislative outcomes are unpredictable since sixty-three of the 160 Florida legislators must retire this year due to term limits.

The real test of the state politics of affirmative action may come in November, when Florida's twenty-five electoral votes are at stake. In neighboring Georgia, a Republican candidate's attack on affirmative action helped galvanize large black voter turnout, propelling Democratic Governor Roy Barnes to a win in 1998.

Ellen Spears is managing editor of Southern Changes.