In an unprecedented act of defiance, two Democratic lawmakers from opposite ends of the state occupied Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan’s office Tuesday night, refusing to leave after Gov. Jeb Bush told them he won’t roll back his initiative to do away with affirmative action in state hiring, contracts and university admissions. An irritated Bush said he wouldn’t budge and called the impromptu office sit-in by Miami Sen. Kendrick Meek and Jacksonville Rep. Tony Hill “childish, sophomoric and unbecoming an elected official.”
“We’re not going to waver, of course not,” Bush said during a brief news conference. “We’re doing the people’s work and I’m not going to let anybody, for any reason, stop us from doing that.”
As of late Tuesday evening, the two legislators — accompanied by a dozen news reporters — were camped out in Brogan’s office, located in the same suite as Bush’s office, behind a set of locked doors in the state Capitol.
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As TV stations across the state aired the story, words Bush had uttered earlier in the day added fuel to the fire. Speaking to press spokesman Justin Sayfie, Bush was caught on videotape saying: “Your life’s gonna be a living hell. Kick their asses out.”
Sayfie, who said part of his job is handling the news media, told The Herald that the governor was referring to the reporters in Brogan’s office, not to the legislators.
Bush left his office around 6:30 p.m. toting his laptop computer, and told Sayfie, “I don’t want anybody near my office.”
Brogan also left, after telling the two legislators that he expected them to respect personal papers and effects in the office.
Three agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were left behind to secure the office and stationed themselves at doors inside the office suite. Late in the evening, after first refusing the legislators’ requests to have food delivered, Bush’s aides allowed a delivery of fried chicken, corn bread and Mountain Dew to be sent in. The delivery included what Meek described as “contraband” — an electric cord to charge his cellular phone, because the administration had shut off outgoing phone calls.
The confrontation began with a 3:30 p.m. meeting between the two lawmakers and Brogan. Meek, 33, and Hill, 42, asked the lieutenant governor to ask Bush to rescind his One Florida Initiative. Brogan replied that it was “highly unlikely” Bush would agree. The lawmakers said they were prepared to remain in Brogan’s office until Bush relented.
A few minutes later, Bush stuck his head into Brogan’s office and, according to Meek, said, “If you think I’m going to rescind this, I suggest you get some blankets.”
An hour later Meek’s aide, Joyce Postell, carried in blankets for the two.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT
Meek said he had not originally meant to occupy the governor’s suite, but was frustrated because Bush has refused to meet with him to discuss One Florida.
Meek and Hill sat on a striped couch in Brogan’s office, at one point thumbing through coffee-table books as frustrated administration officials tried to encourage a large entourage of reporters to leave.
As the evening wore on, Bush became more and more frustrated, and held a hastily arranged press conference to complain about the legislators’ actions.
“Frank [Brogan] can’t work,” Bush fumed. “We’ve got to call in the FDLE because this is supposed to be a secure office; this is going to cost the taxpayers.”
The governor also noted that the educational part of One Florida got the Clinton administration’s approval Tuesday.
Bush said Meek and Hill would be allowed to stay until this morning. Asked what would happen if they refused to leave today, he responded, “I don’t know. This is not the kind of thing you see in a manual somewhere. . . . But we’ve got work to do.”
For the governor, the timing couldn’t be worse. He is scheduled to release his multibillion-dollar budget proposal at 10 a.m. today after a week of elaborate build-up over the details.
As Bush and Brogan prepared to leave the Capitol around 6 p.m., their top aides asked 11 newspaper and television reporters to leave Brogan’s office.
“We’re asking people to act responsibly and act like adults,” said Bush’s legal counsel, Carol Licko. The reporters refused to leave while the legislators remained.
Miami Sen. Daryl Jones, who drew criticism for his early approval of Bush’s plan, joined the pair an hour into the sit-in and praised them for the 1960s-style protest just a day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Historically, it’s been effective, hasn’t it? I think that’s wonderful,” said Jones, who left about 5:30 p.m. to inform the Black Caucus of what was happening and was not allowed to go back into the governor’s suite.
Meek, too, paid homage to civil rights activists who occupied restaurant counters in the 1960s to protest racism.
“I wouldn’t be a state senator right now if someone didn’t do what I’m doing right now,” Meek said. “The difference between now and the ’60s is that black folks and women are elected now. We didn’t have that in those days.”
Hill, too, compared his actions to those of civil rights pioneers. “Somebody had to take a stand. Rosa Parks sat on the bus,” he said, referring to the woman credited with starting the public bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., seen as the beginning of the era of civil rights activism.
At around 8:30 p.m., Meek’s mother, U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami, called Brogan’s office and, via speakerphone, passionately backed her son’s decision.
“That young man is saying we are not going to sit back and be denied, and I support him wholeheartedly,” Carrie Meek said. “If he sits there till hell freezes over, I’m not going to worry about it. We are going to do whatever is necessary to get attention from the governor.”
Not all black lawmakers, though, agreed that occupying the lieutenant governor’s private office was the right strategy.
“They can’t solve anything at this level,” said Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. “I can understand their frustration, but this isn’t the way to do it.”
Rep. Beryl Roberts, D-Miami, said legislators are better off trying to negotiate with Bush.
“To sit and wait for the governor isn’t likely to accomplish anything,” she said. “The name of the strategy today is to be working with the governor, networking.”
RELYING ON GOOD WILL
Meek and Hill, like many other black lawmakers, oppose One Florida because they say Bush’s alternative to affirmative action depends on the good will of state officials to do the right thing by women and minorities.
The One Florida Initiative, an executive order that Bush signed in November, eliminates numerical goals for hiring minorities in state jobs, for admissions to the state university system and for awarding state contracts. Instead, the initiative relies on an ambitious program of voluntary diversity and a promise to guarantee the top 20 percent of each high school's graduates a slot in the state university system.
The One Florida Initiative has been controversial from the start. Many black lawmakers see it as a concession to California businessman Ward Connerly’s campaign to ban race and sex preferences in state hiring, contracting and university admissions.
Both Meek and Hill say that relying on the good will of state officials is not enough, and that laws are needed to ensure affirmative action.
“You believe in a pipe dream, you’re living in Disney World if you think people are not judged on their race or their gender,” Meek said. “That is the reality and you can’t legislate morals and character.
“This isn’t A-plus. This isn’t tort reform or death penalty appeals, this is affirmative action,” Meek said. “People lost their lives for the opportunities we have.”