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Bush to defend One Florida in Miami

The governor says he'll attend the second of three hearings on his proposal to end state policies on affirmative action.

Florida's escalating debate on affirmative action moves Thursday from the Capitol to Miami, where a resolute Gov. Jeb Bush intends to listen to his critics but also defend his plan to turn back decades-old remedies to discrimination.

Bush, under increasing criticism since lawmakers staged a sit-in in his offices two weeks ago, announced Tuesday that he will attend a seven-hour public hearing in Miami on his One Florida plan. His critics say as many as 3,000 people are expected to cluster around the chambers of the Miami-Dade County Commission over the course of the day.

"The governor has been in favor of these public hearings since they were announced," said Bush spokeswoman Liz Hirst. "He has consistently said internally to his staff that he'd like to be there if he can fit it in."

While Bush addresses his critics, perhaps the most controversial figure in the affirmative action debate will be just across town.

California businessman Ward Connerly will spend Thursday meeting with newspaper editors and groups that both support and oppose his petition drive for a constitutional amendment to end existing affirmative action policies in state and local government.

"I'll tell you one thing," Connerly said Tuesday. "I'm not going to that damn hearing. I think it's a waste of time. It will be filled with testimonials: "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for affirmative action' and all of that nonsense. It gives a false impression that there's a lot of support for affirmative action, when what it really is doing is concentrating on a lot of the usual suspects."

Connerly and others maintain that Bush created One Florida to drive out Connerly to avoid a "divisive" election year. The Bush plan, however, has become the focus of attacks by black lawmakers and some women's groups.

"The Lord planned it that way," said Connerly, who said his trip to Florida was planned before the Miami hearing was scheduled.

Bush repeated Tuesday what he has been saying since the first of three public hearings was held in Tampa on Friday: that his critics are not offering constructive ideas for altering his plan.

But his most visible critic of late, Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said Bush is not listening.

"He's been asking for constructive input?" Meek said. "How about: Don't abolish affirmative action?"

The hearings were among the concessions Bush made after Meek and Jacksonville Rep. Tony Hill staged a 25-hour sit-in in the lieutenant governor's office that began Jan. 18 and ended the next afternoon.

For much of Tuesday, debate centered not on One Florida but on where the joint legislative committee would hold the Miami hearing. Early in the day, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted unanimously to move the hearing from its 300-seat chambers to the 16,000-seat Miami Arena nearby. At the end of the day, however, the venue apparently had not changed.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a friend of Bush who supports affirmative action, said that Bush told him either location was fine. Penelas, a Democrat, said Republican Senate President Toni Jennings told him she had no problem with making the change.

However, Penelas said, "I feel a little division between the House and the Senate."

Katie Baur, a spokeswoman for House Speaker John Thrasher, said concerns that the commission chambers were too small were overstated. "We know that we're going to be able to handle everybody that comes," she said. Baur said audience members will be given "timed, stamped and numbered speech cards" and that doors will open at 1 p.m., an hour before the meeting is to begin.