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Questions on November ballot show conservatives still matter

TALLAHASSEE — The election of Gov. Charlie Crist in 2006, and his sustained popularity while pursing a moderate agenda ever since, is often cited as evidence that the decadelong reign of social conservatives in Florida is over.

But now, as voters prepare for a November election to pick a new president, the movement has returned from the shadows of Florida's malleable political landscape.

Voters will be asked to insert a gay marriage ban into the state Constitution and remove a century-old limitation on state funding for religious organizations.

Republicans hope advancing the two causes will serve as a "market correction" to the party under Crist, nourish soft support for presidential nominee John McCain and combat recent Democratic gains in state elections.

"There has been no shortage of stories that the Christian right is dead. But family values voters are surging right now," said John Stemberger, the Orlando activist behind the gay marriage ban.

"There's a lot of people just looking for leadership and issues that can bring them out. Now we have those vehicles," said Dennis Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala who now heads the Christian Coalition of Florida.

Whether the surge is something real or a last gasp of the Jeb Bush era remains to be seen, of course. But getting the items on the ballot is an unqualified success that took many by surprise.

The gay marriage ban — it actually defines marriage exclusively as between a man and a woman —was a grass roots initiative that took several years to realize as petitions circulated in churches, parades and Fourth of July festivals.

Even Crist signed one during the 2006 campaign, but he has since backed away, calling himself a "live-and-let-live kind of guy." Bush, who could not be reached for this story, has previously supported a ban.

The religious funding proposal emerged far more suddenly and unexpectedly — this week during a meeting of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a 25-member panel of political appointees with the power to place referendums on the ballot.

The panel represents the Bush brand of Republicanism more than it does Crist, even though Crist appointed 11 of the 25 members. Several had worked for Bush or were appointed to boards by him, and House Speaker Marco Rubio, who named seven members, is also closely aligned with the former governor.

Bringing back vouchers

It was Bush's voucher program, which funneled money to parochial schools, that spurred the tax panel's action Wednesday.

In 2004, an appellate court struck down his beloved program based on a provision in the Florida Constitution calling for "no aid" to religious-based organizations.

Reversing that decision would protect against legal challenges to other programs that get state funding, such as faith-based prisons — a Bush initiative — and drug treatment centers run by churches. It also would serve as a defense for future voucher programs. Crist has supported vouchers, too, but he has not made education the centerpiece of his agenda, as Bush did.

The state Supreme Court also rejected Bush's voucher program, though not on religious grounds. The tax panel may vote next week on a proposal that would address that area in the Constitution, which calls for a uniform system of free public schools.

While Bush and his allies could have tried to reverse the voucher decisions through the Legislature, the taxation commission provided a more expedient vehicle.

Tax commissioners are appointed, not elected, so they do not face the same pressures as lawmakers. An ideological stand is easier to take.

"He has taken this very personally," said Ron Meyer, the teacher union lawyer who brought the suit against Bush's Opportunity Scholarships. "This is just him reaching from beyond to try and undo what he feels was a disappointing decision."

'Political tug of war'

Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg political scientist, also sees the ballot initiative as a push-back against Crist and notes the same tension in the Legislature, where Rubio, R-Miami, has challenged the governor on energy and gambling policy.

"There's no doubt there's a political tug of war between the moderates and the conservatives in the Republican Party," Paulson said.

But Paulson thinks questions over vouchers and gay marriage are somewhat stale and may only bolster Democrats. He said the last state to vote on a gay marriage ban, Arizona in 2006, defeated the measure in large part to a well-organized countercampaign.

During Wednesday's tax commission meeting, former Republican state Sen. John McKay warned that the inclusion of a divisive church vs. state issue could hurt the panel's other work, including a ballot proposal that would represent the most sweeping change to Florida's tax structure in two decades.

McKay, main sponsor of the plan to greatly reduce school property taxes, cautioned that if the panel passed the measure, "everything else we put on the ballot is going to go down in flames." The proposal passed 17-7.

"It is totally retro to say that Florida this year has to worry about gay marriage and vouchers," said Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who oversaw the Democratic Party's net pickup of eight seats in the House since 2006.

But Paulson and other observers think the issues could draw conservative voters to the polls.

"Both of these things show they still have a pulse in the state, and they are still working hard," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "Not to steal Mark Twain's words, but their demise may be exaggerated."

Questions on November ballot show conservatives still matter 03/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 10:19am]
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