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Gov. Bush receives an earful

In Miami, Jeb Bush is greeted by boos and fiery speeches opposing his anti-bias initiative.

It took only seconds for Jeb Bush to get the overwhelming message of 3,000 gathered to talk about his One Florida affirmative action plan Thursday.

The smattering of cheers that greeted the governor at the ornate Mediterranean-style Gusman Center for the Performing Arts was immediately drowned by boos. For 2{ hours of a seven-hour hearing, Bush sat in the front row listening to a raucous civil rights demonstration trashing his plan as an attack on hard-fought opportunities for minorities.

"We're not going back! We're not going back! We're not going back!" the crowd chanted at one point, as scores of people outside the theater sang We Shall Overcome.

On any issue, passions in Miami typically rise a few degrees hotter than the rest of Florida, but affirmative action was explosive. Police surrounded the theater, and, inside, the state legislators holding the hearing tried in vain to remind people about normal decorum at a governmental meeting.

During the seven hours, only two people spoke up in support of One Florida. One of them, businessman Ahmed Kabani, began: "Give Gov. Bush a chance to . . ."

Whatever he said after that was drowned out by jeers.

Bush opened the hearing vowing One Florida will improve diversity in state universities and increase minority participation in state contracts. He spoke of the "heavy heart" and pain he has felt in recent weeks amid misperceptions about his proposed overhaul of Florida's affirmative action programs.

"The underpinning of the One Florida Plan isn't to reject diversity, but to embrace it in its fullest," Bush said. "If I thought that somehow we were taking a step back in the long struggle for civil rights, I wouldn't be here today."

There was no indication that the mostly African-American audience was buying it. Nor did the governor give any hint before leaving that he was rethinking his initiative.

"The governor has a way of saying lately that he's having pain. The pain that he's having is because of self-inflicted wounds," said Democratic U.S. representative and Miami icon Carrie Meek, earning repeated standing ovations.

Amid fire and brimstone speeches about lynchings, slavery and racism Thursday, and a few personal attacks on Bush, it was hard to remember that Bush is the first Republican governor to aggressively reach out to minorities. And it was hard to recall that only a few months ago that Bush was widely hailed for opposing California businessman Ward Connerly's anti-affirmative-action ballot initiative in Florida.

One Florida was Bush's answer to Connerly, and it is billed as a plan for improving opportunities for minorities _ but without divisive and legally vulnerable racial preferences and set-asides in state universities and state contracts. Much of the plan is to be enacted under executive order.

Democratic Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas applauded Bush for political courage in trying to improve Florida's affirmative action efforts. But he said the governor would be better off by first focusing on defeating Connerly's initiative.

"Sometimes you've got to know when you need to take a couple steps back," Penelas told Bush. "With all due respect, if the people who would be benefited (by One Florida) believe there are flaws in the plan, I sincerely believe you need to take a couple steps back."

Bush later dismissed the suggestion: "We've taken a step back to allow these hearings to take place."

Few of the speakers Thursday appeared to know the details of One Florida, or have specific criticisms. Rather, they passionately recounted how affirmative action had lifted their own lives and their children's. For all the failings of affirmative action, they're not ready to pull the plug.

"The people that are standing outside, and the people in here that are yelling and screaming, are doing that because they're very passionate about something and that is opportunity. Without affirmative action, there is no opportunity," said 20-year-old community college student Lubni Cazeau.

"To take away affirmative action is nothing more than a step back and a sophisticated way of turning us back to segregation, and I will not stand for it," 75-year-old Eufaula Frazier said.

Most expressed no trust in Bush, saying he consulted only with political allies in developing it.

"You can't run government like a business. Democracy is messier than that. You have to involve the people," said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson, urging Bush to slow down with his plan and talk to more people. "This isn't an emergency. It's critically important social policy for women in this state, for minorities and for the whole state."

Speakers repeatedly noted that Bush never would have had public hearings had not two black state legislators, Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami and Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, held a sit-in near the governor's office.

Speakers and spectators repeatedly suggested One Florida was really aimed at helping the governor's brother, George W. Bush, in his presidential bid _ either by inflaming racial divisions or by fending off a Connerly initiative that would draw African-Americans to the polls.

"We know you're only trying to protect your brother," Haneef Hamidullah shouted to cheers. "We're going to get you (at a rally) March the 7th in Tallahassee, and we're going to get your brother in November."

Billy Hardeman, a Miami preacher and politician, drew a booming ovation by recounting how Bush's wife, Columba, was caught last year sneaking purchases from France through customs.

"Mr. Governor, you are a privileged white man. If you were not a white governor, your Hispanic wife would have been arrested. I'm not surprised you don't understand why black folk are so damn upset with you," he thundered.

The special legislative committee will hold a final hearing on One Florida next week, and then put together recommendations.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor co-chairs the committee, which so far has listened to more than 12 hours of passionate opposition.

"I've been surprised at the strength of emotion expressed, and I've been very moved by that emotion," Latvala said Thursday. "I've got concerns with it, because anything that divides our population like that has to be a concern."

For One Florida

+ U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum

+ House Speaker John Thrasher

+ U.S. Hispanic Chamber

of Commerce

+ Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte

+ Associated General

Contractors of Florida

Against

One Florida

+ American Association

of University Women

+ National Organization

for Women

+ NAACP

+ Florida Conference of Black State Legislators

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