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Past haunts "One Florida' plans

Democracy is a messy business. Government comes up with a plan, then these pesky voters start raising Cain. "One Florida" sounds so righteous. What do these people want?

Today in Miami the public will air its opinions at the second meeting on One Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to overhaul state affirmative-action policies. The first meeting was last week in Tampa at Hillsborough Community College. The 15 members of the Joint Select Committee, plus aides, minions and a few spare legislators (in case a member proved defective) sat on a stage behind a stockade of poinsettias the dark red of dried blood. "We're glad you're here," said the chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor, to the dim view-taking throng.

Sen. Latvala didn't look glad. With his tidy beard, lavender-pink shirt and wide tie, he looked like that kind of 1970s high school social studies teacher (you remember) who wanted to be cool but couldn't shake his long-held conviction that those punks at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago got exactly what they deserved.

The governor's One Florida disciples, who evangelized for almost an hour and a half of this supposedly four-hour meeting, were way on message. A big blue screen overhead read "FACTS about One Florida" as Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan insisted that Bush feels your pain. Ward Connerly does not feel your pain. Gov. Jeb Bush consulted, said Brogan, "with at least half a dozen members of the black caucus" as well as three or four student leaders and some other fine African-Americans.

Add it up: That's a good 10 to 12 black folks.

University system Chancellor Adam Herbert and business leader Windell Paige took their turn, speaking in phrases that were weirdly synchronous with what appeared on the big blue screen. Trust the governor, they said. He cares for you.

But it's clear the people at the One Florida meeting weren't trusting _ they were hurting. A lawyer from Tampa, in work shirt and shades, invoked the South's terrible past. Latvala cut him off: "We are interested in your comments on the One Florida plan, not a history of the civil rights movement."

A young Hillsborough Community College student named Crystal approved of One Florida: "The only people who will be left out are people who don't try hard in school." She got booed until Sen. Kendrick Meek stood up from the audience and called for courtesy. He's the rock 'n' roll star now, the man, the object of the crowd's wild applause and cheers. His baby face has developed gravitas since the dark night of the soul he spent on Frank Brogan's carpet with only Rep. Tony Hill, some members of the Fourth Estate and Church's fried chicken to keep him company.

And on it went. A man handed the committee a list of civil rights martyrs. A minister told a little story: "Thousands of years ago Moses spoke to government and said, "Let my people go.' And Pharaoh said "Trust me.' "

What do these people want?

By 6 p.m., there were still 50 or 60 who wanted to speak. A young woman on crutches got up to the microphone. On her sweater was pinned a piece of paper with "Ain't I A Woman?" hand-lettered on it. Her voice vibrated with rage as she spoke of how Jeb Bush would rather "have his picture taken with little black children than educate them." Others lined up behind her, furious that they had been there for hours, had taken children out of school, had taken off from work, and the system for letting people have their say had broken down. To Sen. Latvala's credit, he said he'd stay as long as anyone had a piece to speak, and he ordered a pack of panting aides to see that everyone got to testify. But in being exasperated over the constant reiteration of history, Latvala missed the point. One Florida may be the future, but the wrongs of the past haunt us. There's old pain here like an echo that won't fade: 240 years of slavery, 100 years of segregation. The quotation pinned to the young woman's sweater was from Sojourner Truth, a runaway slave and architect of the Underground Railroad. She believed in talking back to authority. For that she was called "uppity."

+ Diane Roberts is a Times editorial writer. +

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