Protesters Await Bush Governor to Address New Session

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TALLAHASSEE -- Shortly after 11 a.m. today, Gov. Jeb Bush will step to the podium of the Florida House and tell political leaders and supporters that the state is in great shape.

At the same time, thousands of protesters will march toward the Capitol with a different message: Bush's plan to overhaul affirmative action could devastate women and minorities.

"I think the governor is trying to say all is well," said U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat and march leader, "and that's not the case."

The protest, which will draw national civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, could overshadow Bush's State of the State address and the opening of the annual legislative session.

Bush yesterday released a letter he sent Friday to Jackson, King, Mfume and National Urban League President Hugh Price inviting them to meet and discuss his One Florida Initiative. But Bush made clear he would not back away from the plan.

"In all candor, I do not mean to mislead you with this invitation," Bush wrote. "My One Florida plan reflects my personal bedrock principles about fostering diversity in Florida in less divisive ways, and I do not envision deviating from these principles."

Bush offered to meet with the civil rights leaders yesterday or today or talk with them by phone.

Justin Sayfie, Bush's spokesman, said no response had been received as of 6 p.m. yesterday.

"We're still waiting to hear from them whether they want to dialogue with Gov. Bush on this issue," Sayfie said.

With busloads of protesters expected to travel to Tallahassee, civil rights leaders say the size of today's march could be unprecedented in Florida. Most estimates topped the 10,000 people who marched on the Capitol in 1982 to support the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment.

Bush said he will use part of the State of the State speech to discuss One Florida, which has drawn opposition because it would end racial, ethnic and gender preferences in state contracting and university admissions.

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party will try to counter the march by running radio and newspaper ads supporting One Florida. One ad, which features the voice of an African-American woman, started running yesterday on black-oriented radio stations.

"The message is, we're not intimidated by the march," state Republican Chairman Al Cardenas said.

The first day of the 60-day legislative session is usually a festive event, with flowers filling the House and Senate chambers and lawmakers' families clapping from the visitors' galleries. …