FORT MYERS, FLA. -- You can forget most of what you've heard and seen
on CNN regarding the situation in Florida. As someone who has been
in both northern and southern parts of the state for 12 of the past
20 days, I can tell you that the carefully crafted rhetoric of the
spin doctors who parade before the cameras does not do justice to
the vitriol on the ground.
People here are bitterly angry at a host of injustices, and the
volatility level is rising. Indeed, with the Florida Legislature
preparing for a special session designed to trump the U.S. Supreme
Court should it rule in favor of Vice President Al Gore, the words
"a pending revolution" may not be hyperbolic. Because, if the overwhelmingly
Republican Legislature appoints Bush electors in the face of an
unprecedented number of voting irregularities -- some certainly
fraudulent, others mere oversights -- there is no telling what will
happen in this state.
Florida has a long-standing tradition of deep polarization that's
engendered hatred between rich and poor, black, white and Hispanic,
Southerners and Northerners, and Republicans and Democrats. Florida
is a "right to work" state where, on average, blue-collar employees
earn some $4,000 less annually than unionized workers in other states.
Florida also leads the nation in gated communities, where impoverished
or poorly paid service workers seethe in anger at the Midas-like
wealth of their employers.
In fact, much of the state has the feel of a Third World dictatorship:
Inside the gates are ornately decorated mansions surrounded by well-manicured
golf courses and gardens that ease the tensions of the good life.
Outside, an underclass of poor or middle-income people vie for the
table scraps of the new economy and for the privilege of perhaps
rising to the top alongside their betters.
Class and racial conflict fuels the current presidential conflagration
in Florida, but you won't hear about that on CNN. That network and
other major media outlets are too busy tracking the latest spin
from hired guns to show you the aspirations and the conflicts among
real people. Yet, those aspirations and the opposition they've inspired
are the reason the state could precipitate a constitutional crisis
in the next two weeks.
At the center of Florida's class and race conflict is Gov. Jeb
Bush. He successfully resisted Ward Connerly's attempts to place
a referendum on affirmative action on the November ballot. This
maneuver managed to save his brother the embarrassment of running
on a ballot that contained an anti-affirmative-action petition,
something that the Bush clan feared would galvanize the minority
vote and all but give Gore the state of Florida.
But Jeb Bush could not ignore the insistent calls from middle-class
and poor whites to neutralize if not destroy affirmative action.
Although it had failed to truly level the playing field, affirmative
action in Florida had given a number of minority contractors and
small businesses enough work to threaten the traditional class structure.
Blacks and Hispanics were creeping up the income ladder, embarrassing
the cracker class with their fancy automobiles and memberships at
private clubs. Something had to be done.
Enter Jeb Bush and his One Florida plan. Saying that it "transcended
affirmative action," Bush signed an executive order banning discrimination
on the basis of race and gender in Florida and guaranteeing the
top 20 percent of high school graduates a college education, regardless
of standardized test results. But the calculated effect of One Florida
was to moderate anti-Bush feeling among some Hispanics, primarily
Cubans, and to further divide the state's already fragile minority
African-Americans publicly vowed revenge. As part of an unprecedented
$10 million national voter registration campaign waged by the NAACP,
Florida blacks went to the polls in droves. In fact, nearly 70 percent
more black Floridians cast ballots this year than in 1996 --in real
numbers, a whopping 363,000 more. Estimates are that 29 percent
of Gore's votes in Florida came from African-Americans, as opposed
to 19 percent in the rest of the nation. This was supposed to be
the black community's payback to Jeb Bush.
But on Election Day, how many of those votes were counted? In Wakulla
County, Highway Patrol troopers were stationed outside voting precincts
with lights flashing, intimidating and ticketing black voters, some
of whom were too afraid to vote. In overwhelmingly black Volusia
County, officials say a mysterious number of votes for Gore disappeared
from the totals and may not have been included in the final count.
African-American citizens in Duval, Palm Beach, Broward and Hillsborough
counties also say they were intimidated. National NAACP officials
have called for a federal investigation and are suing state officials.
Add to this the shocking intimidation of election officials in
Miami-Dade County, numerous undercounts, illegal ballot handling
by Republicans, and it begins to look as if the election was engineered.
This is why Democratic officials on the ground in Florida are incensed,
perhaps more than Gore operatives: They know who voted in their
counties, they've done the numbers themselves, and they say the
figures don't add up.
Partisanship makes it difficult to assess the truth. But imagine,
if you will, reading an account of this very same election in some
Third World nation. How many of us would believe such an election
to be a fair and accurate reflection of the will of the people?
Syl Jones, of Minnetonka, is a playwright, journalist and communications
© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune