The battle cry in Florida: Jeb must go!

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Hundreds of election campaigners who gathered here, Aug. 27, for a debate between Democratic candidates for Florida governor were divided on who should win the Sept. 10 primary. But they had a unanimous verdict for the incumbent: “Jeb Bush must go.”

They stood outside the Eissey Theater on the campus of Palm Beach Community College and cheered as their favorites arrived, former Attorney General Janet Reno, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, and State Sen. Daryl Jones, the first African American to seek the state’s highest office.

Jeb Bush and the Florida Republicans may have hoped the debate would end up with blood on the floor. Instead, all three candidates expressed general agreement on the issues while directing their fire at Bush. The media called it a “lovefest.”

Those I interviewed outside the Eissey Theater were delighted that the three candidates laid the basis for unity behind the winner of the primary. Any of the three candidates would be better than Bush.

Many were participants in the powerful grassroots coalition that delivered a majority vote for Al Gore during the 2000 election and the heroic post-election “Battle of Florida” to block the Bush-Cheney campaign from stealing the election. That grassroots coalition – the AFL-CIO, the women’s movement, the African American and Latino community, the senior citizen movement – is alive and well today even though they couldn’t stop the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 coup d’état.

Maureen Dineen, president of the 122,000 Florida Education Association, scoffed when I commented that Jeb Bush describes himself as the “education” governor. “He’s lying,” she retorted as she stood holding a McBride sign outside the theater. “Instead of educational reform, what Jeb Bush is trying to do is privatize education in this state. Florida is the only state in the country with a statewide voucher system. A court has ruled it unconstitutional and the Bush Administration has appealed it.”

For Florida’s embattled classroom teachers, she said, “This is a life and death election. Jeb Bush doesn’t want teachers to be organized into unions. He has done everything he can to undermine us.”

Nearby stood Barbara DeVane-Gilberg. She is executive director of “We All Count.” A veteran labor organizer, she is also a member of the executive board of the Florida National Organization for Women (NOW). In Jan. 2000, she joined State Rep. Tony Hill and State Sen. Kendrick Meek in a 24-hour sit-in in Jeb Bush’s office in Tallahassee to protest his racist “One Florida” repeal of affirmative action. Now, she said, her mission is to deny him a second term.

For Jeb Bush, DeVane charged, it is as easy to lose foster children as it is to mislay 50,000 ballots. She was referring to the scandal raging in Florida over the Department of Children & Families (DCF), which under Jeb Bush’s stewardship has “lost” 500 Florida foster children, several of whom died from beatings or other abuse.

In a frantic effort to quiet the outrage, Bush fired DCF Director Kathleen Kearney and replaced her with his hand-picked choice, Jerry Regier. Then it surfaced that Regier had written an article in a Christian fundamentalist magazine, Pastoral Renewal, advocating extreme corporal punishment of children. The article condoned “manly love,” in which women are forbidden from working outside the home. When a child disobeys, “Smite him with the rod,” Regier wrote.

“You can’t say you support women and children and appoint a far-right religious fanatic like Regier,” DeVane told the World. “Regier thinks men should tell their wives what to do. He believes in spanking children hard enough to raise welts. I’m shocked and appalled that the governor of Florida would appoint such an extremist to oversee our most vulnerable citizens, children.”

DeVane was distributing a green leaflet, a mock stock certificate in a corporation named “JEBron,” which accused the governor of Enronizing Florida’s school system. “Florida ranks near the bottom tier of states in most measures of educational performance and in many cases has lost ground during the 1990s,” the leaflet charged. “The spending gains that Gov. Bush claims disappear when inflation and student population are taken into account.”

The leaflet blasts Bush for relying on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, inflating student achievement in reading by excluding the lowest ten percent of those tested, mostly poor and minority pupils, “off-the-books” accounting methods that bring to mind Enron and WorldCom. “Florida is losing experienced teachers to Georgia because this state’s pay scale is (ten percent) below those for the nation and neighboring Georgia,” the leaflet charges.

Bush brags that he “increased” school funding by $3 billion, but the Palm Beach Post debunked that claim. “In real dollars, school spending was $300 less per student in 2001 than it was in 1991, when inflation and student population are taken into consideration.”

Bush’s favorable attitude toward child abusers is indicative of his attitude toward people in general, DeVane said, adding, “Look at his budget. On the one hand, he and his cronies in the legislature cut taxes on the rich by $3.6 billion. On the other hand, they took away funding for eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures for poor, indigent senior citizens.”

Bush invited the CEOs of Florida corporations to come to Tallahassee to lobby for this tax cut for the rich “at a time when we needed the money to pay for health care, to lower class size, to increase the salaries of our teachers,” DeVane said.

When Bush says there is no money to provide for these vital state services, she added, “that’s hogwash. This is a rich state. We’re richer than many countries in the world, it’s a matter of getting your priorities straight.”

An hour later, several hundred Reno supporters packed the Abby Bar & Grill in North Palm Beach, including about 50 members of the United Painters and Allied Trades (UPAT), AFL-CIO. Steve Hall, UPAT state political director, said, “Jeb Bush has destroyed the educational system in this state. We have more children going to school in portable trailers than in brick buildings. The teachers are overworked and underpaid. The classrooms are overcrowded.” Bush has enforced Florida’s Right to Work (for less) law with a vengeance, he said.

“Florida has one of the highest construction industry death rates in the country,” he said. “He closed down the Florida Department of Labor. I see both Jeb Bush and George W. Bush moving to grant more benefits for the corporations and the richest one percent while slashing benefits for working people.”

Hall said he witnessed two Republican operatives going into the Board of Elections in Seminole County during the contested 2000 election to write in the voter ID numbers on absentee ballots. “No one can convince me that George W. Bush – with help from Jeb – didn’t steal the election in Florida,” Hall said. “This is payback time.”

Tony Fransetta, president of the 112,000 member Florida Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), pointed out that DCF is responsible for overseeing the welfare and safety of senior citizens as well as children. “If DCF can’t take care of the children, if they don’t even know where the children are, how can we expect them to meet the needs of senior citizens in Florida?”

Before Bush took office, Medicaid benefits for poor people, including indigent senior citizens, had been funded at 100 percent of the federal poverty rate. “Jeb Bush cut it to 88 percent of the official poverty rate,” Fransetta said. “It meant that the state no longer provides poor senior citizens with prescription drugs, eyeglasses, dentures, and hearing aids. They cut these benefits for the poor after Jeb pushed through his tax cut for the richest one percent.”

Raiding Medicaid and Medicare is nothing new for Jeb Bush. In 1985, Jeb, then owner of a real estate agency in Miami, lobbied the federal government on behalf of his crony, Miguel Recarey, to approve Recarey’s health maintenance organization (HMO) as a certified Medicare provider.

Bush’s influence paid off when Recarey, a confidante of Tampa mobster Santos Trafficante, was approved for a total of $1 billion in Medicare funding by the Reagan-Bush Administration. Federal investigators launched a probe of Recarey and he fled the country under indictment for $100 million in Medicare fraud. He remains at large today. Jeb Bush was never called to account for his role in this swindle.

In 1988, the Washington Post reported that Jeb Bush and a partner defaulted on a $4.5 million loan from a Florida S&L that had been approved for Bush with no repayment schedule.

A lawsuit by federal regulators cited this Bush default as a contributing factor to the subsequent collapse of the Florida S&L for a loss of $285 million for thousands of depositors in the Miami area. But with “Daddy in the White House” all was smoothed over and Jeb never answered for the losses suffered by these depositors.

Jeb Bush is required under the state constitution to oversee the Board of Trustees of the Florida State Pension Fund. Bush pressured the pension fund to continue to buy Enron stock even after the energy trading corporation was plunging toward bankruptcy. The state pension fund lost $300 million when Enron stock became worthless. Last January, even as this disaster was hitting the state, Jeb Bush attended a fund-raiser to benefit his reelection at the home of former Enron President Thomas Kinder in Houston.

Jeb Bush has used secretive, autocratic methods to run the Sunshine State in the interests of the wealthy agribusiness, bankers, and real estate developers. It was natural that he and his Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, in the 2000 presidential election would hire an ultra-right outfit, Database Technologies, Inc. of Boca Raton, to “scrub” Florida’s voter rolls of 57,000 names, mostly African American and Latino, falsely identifying thousands as “former felons.” This racist scam, in flagrant violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was central to George W. Bush’s theft of the 2000 election.

A Miami judge refused to throw out the NAACP’s lawsuit charging that Bush and Harris violated the voting rights of these Florida citizens. The NAACP announced Sept. 3 that the State of Florida has agreed to a settlement of their lawsuit charging voting irregularities in seven counties.

“We need to make sure that people keep focused on the target in this election,” Tony Hill, a former Jacksonville longshoreman and a candidate for the Florida Senate told the World. “Jeb Bush disrespected the African American community when he rammed through the ‘One Florida’ plan destroying affirmative action.

“He disrespected the people of Florida when he ‘scrubbed’ the voting rolls and falsely identified thousands of innocent people as ‘felons.’ In Duval County alone, the votes of 26,000 people, most of them Black voters, were not counted. Jeb Bush may try the same tactics again. We are urging people to stay vigilant and vote early in this year’s elections.”

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