One Florida Shows Difficulty of Finding the Middle Ground

Commentary by Pete du Pont
As the saying goes "No good deed goes unpunished."

This is especially true for Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose "One Florida" plan has ignited a firestorm of controversy over affirmative action and racial politics.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. "One Florida" was supposed to avoid controversy and promote racial harmony. Just after Bush took office last year, he was approached by Ward Connerly, the California regent who successfully led ballot-initiative campaigns ending affirmative action programs in California and Washington state. Connerly wanted Bush's support for a similar amendment in Florida. Bush refused.

Unfazed by Bush's refusal, Connerly pressed forward anyway. By November polls showed that despite the popular governor's opposition, the initiative enjoyed better than 2-to-1 support among likely voters. Seeing trouble on the horizon, Bush issued an executive order called "One Florida," which sought to carve out the middle ground in the affirmative action debate.

Under "One Florida," universities wouldn't be allowed to use race as a criterion for admission. However, the top 20 percent of each high school's graduating class would receive guaranteed admission to one of the state's ten public universities, regardless of their grade-point average or test scores. In addition, Bush called for affirmative action based on economics rather than race, i.e. factoring in a student's family income, zip code, and whether the parents went to college. Need-based financial assistance would be increased by 43 percent, and race-based scholarships would continue. The state would also pay for every high school sophomore to take the PSAT for free, and to increase the number of advance-placement courses in low-performing schools.

Similarly, racial set-asides in state contracting would be banned. However, the state's procurement officers would be accountable to the governor's office for their ability to "internalize our commitment to diversity." And, race neutral efforts to help businesses in poor areas would be coupled with special financial assistance for minority firms.

One would think Bush's attempt at compromise would be praised. It was initially. The New York Times called it "a reasoned basis for the coming debate," and liberal columnist Clarence Page described it as a "sane, sensible way out of the nation's most vexing and volatile racial dilemma." Closer to home, state Sen. Daryl Jones, the head of the legislative Black Caucus said, "while the proof will be in the pudding a year from now," the Bush plan looked "very good on paper."

Four months later, the same Daryl Jones trashed Bush for refusing to drop or amend his plan, and was asserting that "even (Saddam) Hussein and (Slobodan) Milosevic" had been more open to compromise.

So what happened? Liberals using the banner of the civil rights movement as a shield for partisan gains called for a crack down on affirmative action orthodoxy. First the NAACP went to court to block Bush's plan. Then came a 25-hour sit-in at the Lt. Governor's office orchestrated for the media by two state legislators, to demand public hearings.

Raucous protests followed at each hearing site. Bush was called a "dictator" and a "white supremacist," and compared to George Wallace and Jim Crow. One local representative of the National Organization for Women said the plan reminded her of "the days of slavery," and another declared that the governor had taken the "first step towards resegregation."

The local efforts were encouraged by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and feminist leader Patricia Ireland, who led a campaign culminating in a march on the state capital March 7, the day of Gov. Jeb Bush's state of the state address. It was also "Super Tuesday" - coincidence?

The still unfolding story of "One Florida" shows how hard it is to stake out the middle ground in the affirmative action wars. Bush's attempt to find a "less-divisive" route to diversity has proven more divisive than the preferences or the initiative. Maybe Bush's efforts would have been praised if Congress wasn't hanging in the balance. Maybe it would be called a national example if Jeb's brother wasn't running for president

Either way, "One Florida" has served to demonstrate an important political fact: Even as affirmative action finds itself on the wrong side of history, its power as a liberal rallying cry remains undiminished. And in trying to appease the civil-rights lobby, Bush courted compromise where there was none to be found.

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The NCPA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public policy organization. We depend entirely on the financial support of individuals, corporations and foundations that believe in private sector solutions to public policy problems.