Strange, eventful second year for Florida governor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The year started with a pair of lawmakers holding a sit-in in his office suite and ended with an international horde of reporters and photographers camped on his doorstep.

In the strange and eventful year 2000, things outside Gov. Jeb Bush's control often overshadowed his agenda.

''There haven't been a whole lot of tranquil moments,'' he said last week.

The unveiling of his budget was eclipsed by the sit-in. His State of the State address had to compete with a protest march. He had to worry about whether Miami would erupt in violence over the Elian Gonzalez case. And the presidential election turned out to be tougher than expected for his older brother and more turbulent in its aftermath than anyone could have imagined.

Still, the Republican governor pressed on in 2000, ending affirmative action in college admissions and state hiring and moving ahead with school vouchers, a shortening of time for death penalty appeals, and a revamping of the budget process.

''He's proven adept at getting his message out and getting his programs enacted,'' said Ron Sachs, a spokesman for Bush's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. ''Certainly there were some controversies that punctuated the year. He still gets to set the state's agenda.''

His approval rating was 63 percent last summer, the highest ever for a first-term Florida governor. With the Legislature in Republican hands, some political observers said Bush remains in good shape politically - at least in the short term.

House Democratic leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach said Bush may be an easier target in 2002 because of the presidential election. Democrats around the country were angered by the Florida vote.

And veteran Republican operative Tom Slade, a former state GOP chairman, said it wasn't how the post-election maneuvering played out that will hurt Bush the most; it was that the race was so close to begin with.

''The Democrats were shown they can still be a very, very competitive force in Florida politics,'' Slade said, ''and they did not think that way six months ago.''

Bush started his second year in office by declaring without much warning an end to three decades of affirmative action. He replaced it with a series of measures meant to increase minority access to jobs and education. Among other things, Florida now guarantees state college admission to the top 20 percent of each of its graduating high school classes.

Two black Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami and Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, objected to the end of affirmative action and occupied Bush's office for more than a full day. It was the first real test of Bush's young administration. The next day, Bush was dismayed as attention was diverted from his first state budget.

Then in March, Bush's grand plans were overshadowed again, when thousands of people angry over his affirmative action stand marched on the state Capitol as the governor delivered his State of the State address.

The most frequent criticism of Bush has been that he doesn't build consensus, and backed by an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, doesn't often worry about compromise.

''I didn't get elected to sit around here in my cushy job,'' Bush said. ''All my ideas aren't the only ones, clearly. But if I don't start the debate, I'm afraid we'll have a climate of timidity, a climate of passivity, a climate of status quo. And I'm not for it.''

He hasn't had to worry about a climate of passivity this year in Florida.

For much of the year Bush kept an eye on Miami as the political tensions over the Elian case threatened to boil over.

Then, his brother's presidential campaign didn't turn out as expected. Bush wasn't able to easily deliver Florida for George W. Bush.

As Florida governor, he was in a no-win position. Some Republicans blamed him for not doing enough to help his brother. Some Democrats accused him of rigging an election. For more than a month, he nearly disappeared, not wanting to seem to be pulling strings for his brother.

In the aftermath, even his Democratic foes acknowledge he will continue to dominate the political climate, at least for now.

''He's a big asset to the Republican Party and I think most of them know it and see it,'' said University of South Florida history professor Patrick Riordan.


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