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Governor stealing unwanted thunder

Jeb Bush disliked Californian Ward Connerly's plan to end affirmative action, but now his own initiative is under fire.

Even with the brother of the governor running for president, Ward Connerly hoped his would be the political story that captivated Florida this year.

Connerly first came to Florida a year ago, an outsider from California. He began shaping a drive to end existing affirmative action programs in Florida, just as he had shaped elections and won similar campaigns in California and Washington state.

Gov. Jeb Bush met with Connerly early last year and said his ways were "divisive and too sweeping." Months later, the governor created an alternative plan to overhaul affirmative action, and replace it with efforts to "embrace diversity," as Bush put it.

Bush recently acknowledged that his alternative was in part a "calculated risk" designed to grab the state's attention from Connerly. But now, nearly three months after Bush released what he calls his "One Florida" plan, it is the governor who is being described as "divisive."

The irony, Connerly said last week, is that "he was reacting to me. But instead of the issue going away, it's front burner.

"From my standpoint, this couldn't have played out better," Connerly said. "Jeb unwittingly has taken the brunt of the invective I was receiving. He's become the brunt of all that divisiveness he was trying to stay away from."

Bush won 14 percent of the black vote in his 1998 election, but now he is the target of a new kind of civil rights movement that blends tactics of the 1960s with today's technology.

Two black state lawmakers recently staged a 25-hour sit-in at the Capitol to protest One Florida. Church buses are expected to converge on Tallahassee March 7, bringing thousands of protesters to march on the Capitol on the day of Bush's state of the state address. Martin Luther King III is planning a demonstration in Tallahassee next weekend. The National Organization for Women is also getting involved in protests of the Bush program.

And some black lawmakers who supported Bush in the 1998 election are being led away from the governor under pressure by their constituents, who have rallied behind the two Democrats who staged the sit-in, Sen. Kendrick Meek and Rep. Tony Hill.

"It's forced some people into an adversarial role with the governor in order to represent their constituents," said state Rep. Chris Smith, a black Democrat from Fort Lauderdale who supported Bush in 1998. "Everybody hates Ward Connerly, that's a given. But the jury is still out on the governor."

Bush's One Florida initiative would end racial and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting and university admissions. He enacted much of it by executive order, and had hoped the Board of Regents would have approved the university admissions end of it by now.

But, as part of the negotiations to end the sit-in, Bush delayed the regents' vote on the university admissions aspect and ordered three public hearings on the proposal. The first was held Friday in Tampa.

"I resolved a difficult situation," Bush said of his concessions.

Bush has dispatched "blast faxes" regularly since the sit-in ended Jan. 19. The stream of paper has announced the meetings and promised the governor will welcome constructive criticism of the plan. Ultimately, however, the governor maintains that his is the best way to make diversity flourish in Florida. "I'm going to make that happen," he said, "and when that happens, all of this is going to be put in perspective."

"All of this" has been viewed cynically by some Republicans, who speculate that black protests are motivated by party politics rather than genuine concerns about the Bush plan.

Democrats say Bush is the one playing politics. They say he wants to keep Connerly away and therefore keep blacks away from the polls this fall, when Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush is expected to be on the presidential ballot.

Connerly thinks everybody is playing politics except him. "Jeb would say "I didn't do that for political reasons,' " he said. "I don't believe that."

Connerly has been sidelined, but it's not entirely Bush's doing. A state Supreme Court review has put his drive on hold for months, maybe years. Justices will hear arguments March 6 on whether Connerly's amendments to the Florida Constitution meet requirements for scope and clarity. But the justices might not rule in time for Connerly to get the measure on the ballot this fall, or they could even reject the amendments entirely.

So the focus shifted to Bush, and it sharpened with the way he handled the sit-ins.

The night of the sit-in, a video clip was popular across the state. It showed Bush snapping at an aide and commanding him to "kick their a---s out," apparently in reference to reporters who followed the lawmakers into the office of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

The news spread quickly through cell phones and the Internet, and many people thought Bush was referring to the lawmakers. He apologized the next day, but by then it was statewide news.

"He's made himself the target," said Leon Russell, the past president of the Florida NAACP and the leader of a drive to counter Connerly. In November, Russell offered cautious support of the governor's plan. He saw it as the lesser of two evils. That changed.

"His is the more dangerous proposal at this point," Russell said.

Rep. Willie Logan, a black Democrat from Opa-locka, is close to Bush. He said the governor might have avoided the sit-in spectacle had he talked to more black lawmakers who disagree with him _ or that he should at least have sat down with Meek and Hill when they first made their demand.

"It's pretty presumptuous to assume that even though someone's opposed to you, you might not learn something," Logan said.

Bush did meet with Miami Sen. Daryl Jones, a Democrat who is chairman of the black caucus, before he announced One Florida. Jones supported Bush at first, but reversed himself under political pressure from black lawmakers.

"You've got to recognize that he met with the chair of the caucus," Logan said.

Connerly, who pointed out that Bush also did not consult with him before announcing One Florida, said he would have handled things differently at the sit-in. "If it had been me I would have ordered some steaks and said "Hey guys, let's talk about this,' " Connerly said. "If he'd been around the block a little bit longer he would have played their game."

Even with the increased resistance, One Florida has considerable support in the Republican-led Legislature and among Florida voters. Chances are good the plan will survive the regents intact.

In the end, Connerly says, Bush may be more damaged than the plan _ or Connerly himself.

"Race has become very political," Connerly said. "The governor has ventured out on a limb."