Fla. party jeers Jeb, hesitates on Janet

April 19, 2002|By Jules Witcover

ORLANDO, Fla. - The Florida Democrats who held their state party convention here last weekend were fired up by one desire - to rid the Sunshine State of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in this fall's election.

Quite aside from the presidential election fiasco in 2000 in which the Democrats here strongly suspect chicanery on Governor Bush's part in the disputed awarding of Florida's electoral votes to his brother George, the state's Democrats have been taking dead aim at him.

Florida black and Latino voters particularly are on his case for ending affirmative action in public education admissions. One of the highlights at the party convention was a video showing demonstrators at the state capitol, where they conducted a sit-in in the governor's suite, and Mr. Bush telling an aide: "Kick their asses out." It won't be surprising to see the video clip in a Democratic television commercial in the fall.

But the biggest vulnerability the Democrats see in Mr. Bush is his early promise to be "the education governor" for a state whose public school system ranks deplorably low. A Bush budget claiming an increase for education has been torn apart by Florida newspapers, reporting it amounts to just 2 cents a day per pupil.

At the convention, the Democrats also were touting Florida Education Association statistics showing the state had dropped from 39th in the country in per capita spending on education to 49th under Mr. Bush.

The Democratic yearning to oust the president's younger brother has produced a bumper crop of five gubernatorial candidates for the Sept. 10 primary, of whom former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is the best-known to most voters.

Beyond her eight years in Bill Clinton's Cabinet, she is a five-time elected state's attorney in Florida. She leads the other Democrats in the polls but trails Mr. Bush by 17 percent and is a most unlikely looking gubernatorial candidate, awkward as a public speaker and glad-hander.

In her speech before the state party convention here, she spoke in generalities and platitudes, offering no specifics about how she would finance the programs she would push to improve education in Florida.

"The governor says I don't give any specifics," she said, noting instead that in her 25 years of public service she has appointed "people who know what they're doing" and got them the resources they needed to do their jobs. "I have made the hard, hard, hard decisions," she said. "The people know that the buck stops here."

It was mild stuff, but her band of sign-pumping supporters interrupted with cheers. In the corridors, she walked through the crowds slowly with a soft smile, more in the manner of a kindly queen mother than a hustler for votes.

Ms. Reno's lack of programmatic details did not seem too significant before the state convention. Her principal rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill McBride, a decorated Vietnam War officer and self-made business success, was also being criticized for similarly lacking details on how he would pay for his education agenda.

On the eve of the convention, however, Mr. McBride announced plans to seek a new tax on cigarettes of 50 cents a pack, saying it would generate more than $1 billion to finance smaller class sizes and higher teacher salaries. Ms. Reno's solution was that she had managed with budget shortages in her previous jobs and would again.

"People ask why I run," Ms. Reno said at the conclusion of her convention speech, her hands trembling from the Parkinson's disease that doesn't seem otherwise to affect her. "They say your hands shake. My hands shake, but my heart and my head are steady."

One delegate, Wendy Grassi of Planned Parenthood in Sarasota, said Ms. Reno's shaking "is awful, but it's not that so much. I don't know why she thinks she can be governor," with the lack of specifics about what she'd do in the job.

But Ms. Reno presses on with the same grittiness that marked her tenure as the longest-serving U.S. attorney general ever.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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