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Voters' initiatives got the better of Republicans

The most important lesson of the election wasn't that the Republicans won it so hugely. Indeed, to hear some of them afterward, you'd think that they had lost. In one sense, they had.

Their discontent owed to two of the five initiatives that voters had approved: Amendment 9, mandating smaller classes in public schools, and Amendment 11, which establishes a Board of Governors for the university system to replace the Board of Regents that the Legislature scrapped last year as part of its "seamless" educational overhaul.

The significance goes beyond the money that Amendment 9 may cost. (Amendment 11 should save a lot, if it prevents the universities from duplicating expensive graduate programs.) These, and particularly the latter, marked the first time that anybody had gotten the better of the Republicans since they took total control of Tallahassee with Jeb Bush's election four years ago. That's historic.

Before Nov. 5, they had achieved every big thing they had set their minds on: Tax cuts. The "A+" school grading system, backed up by vouchers. Protecting businesses from lawsuits. Mass outsourcing of state jobs, with less protection for many of those remaining on the public payroll. Power for Bush to select not just three but all nine members of the commissions that nominate judges.

Abolishing the Board of Regents, in direct conflict with the stated intent of the last Constitution Revision Commission, was the last step in their consolidation of power. That the regents had opposed a medical school and two new law schools that Republican leaders wanted was only the half of it; they were also suspect as a den of Democrats.

Bush still gets to appoint most of the new Board of Governors, so it may take years (if ever) before Democrats return to the governance structure. But though it may be impossible to persuade the Republicans otherwise, that's not why Sen. Bob Graham undertook to pass the initiative. Graham, who was governor for eight years before going to the Senate in 1987, is the least partisan of all the major Democratic figures I have observed over the past 35 years. No one in either party has cared so much about education, and higher education in particular. On those issues, as on almost everything else, Graham is a policy wonk, not a partisan. With Florida history to support him, he feared ruinous competition among the universities if they got blank checks to launch graduate programs and lobby directly for funds.

This is one of the chapters of history whose beginning can be ascribed to specific events. For Graham, the first was a commencement speech he gave at Florida State University in the spring of 2000. The Legislature was setting up a task force to carry out the educational overhaul that (as it came out later) House Speaker John Thrasher had sketched on a paper napkin at a private dinner with Bush. This included a vote to abolish the regents, on the premise that this could always be reversed.

As Graham tells it, he put a few paragraphs into his speech as to what a bad idea that was, "and got a strong spontaneous response from the audience." That "gave me a sense that there was an awareness of our universities and the threat that this new order represented."

Graham said he next called Bush, who, he said, "assured me that in fact there had not been a final decision."

But the die had in fact been cast before Graham finally addressed the task force, chaired by Phil Handy, on Jan. 8 last year at the University of South Florida. Others who were there remember the event for the bad chemistry between Handy, Thrasher and Rep. Evelyn Lynn (now a state senator) on the one hand and Graham on the other. They were visibly and vocally impatient with him. In not so many words, they implied that he should go back to Washington and mind his own business. State Republican headquarters sounded the same theme during the initiative campaign.

"Graham got visibly angry, very aggressive," recalls my colleague Barry Klein, who covered the event for the Times. "It was clear that this thing was going to evolve into a big fight. Graham was the one guy who actually could turn it around."

To that point, Graham had said nothing specifically about an initiative, which would be difficult to pass under the best circumstances and would require at least $1-million in fund-raising. The confrontation was a milestone.

The task force's "chilly response," as Graham puts it, was the last straw.

"I'm not sure which side of your brain is your analytical side and which is your emotional side, but at that point my commitment to this issue filled both sides of my brain," Graham said earlier this month.

If it was Handy who provoked Graham into organizing the Amendment 11 initiative, the outcome was poetic justice. Handy, it should be recalled, was the instigator of the term limits initiative, 10 years ago, that has had such dramatic (and in my view, dire) impact on Tallahassee. Without it, there might still have been people in Tallahassee who appreciated the many good reasons why there was a Board of Regents in the first place.