Behind Bush’s Smile Lurks a Florida Fanatic

The last time Florida’s lawmakers gathered for a special

session was last January, when Republican leaders summoned them to rush through

legislation that perversely “reformed” the Sunshine State’s death-penalty code.

Among the chief sponsors of that bill-designed to make executions easier,

faster and less vulnerable to appeal or post-conviction proof of innocence-was

Tom Feeney, the Orlando suburbanite who has since risen to become Florida’s

House Speaker.

Apparently, Mr. Feeney and his colleagues couldn’t quite

contain their impatience to achieve “finality” in the matter of capital

punishment, just as they cannot seem to wait for any more votes to be counted

in the Presidential election.

A few months later, the

Republican legislative leaders found themselves defending their lethal handiwork

in the Florida Supreme Court. The justices brushed aside their blustering

threats and promises to strike down the new fast-track death bill as

unconstitutional. With that forthright action, the court earned the permanent

enmity of the Feeney faction. He was among the leaders standing before them and

yammering about “the public will” when one of the justices bluntly asked: “Do you think it’s the public will to execute

innocent persons?”

The answer to that question is no, of course. Nor is the

public eager for the Florida legislators to arrogate to themselves the

appointment of Presidential electors in their home state.

Yet neither the obvious popular distaste for legislative

interference on behalf of George W. Bush, nor the public desire for a full and

fair count of Florida’s ballots, is likely to dissuade Mr. Feeney from calling

a special session to ram through the Bush elector slate. The only event that

might forestall that anti-democratic action is a quick decision against Mr.

Gore in the Florida Supreme Court.

Florida Senate leader John McKay has taken a more cautious

approach than the zealous Mr. Feeney, but together they represent the kind of

politics that will probably characterize a Bush family restoration. Like their

Congressional counterparts, Mr. McKay is a dutiful lackey of business and

agricultural interests, while Mr. Feeney promotes the agenda of the religious

right.

A few years ago, the author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen called Mr. Feeney “a right-wing

flake with a dubious track record.” To take just one example from many, Mr.

Feeney once tried to require the state to issue a special license plate adorned

with the slogan “Choose Life.” On another occasion, he tried to suppress the

dangerous practice of yoga among Florida high-school students.

Both Florida legislative

bosses are creatures of Jeb Bush, the governor who has affected to “recuse”

himself from the struggle over his state’s electoral votes, at least until his

signature is needed on a bill that will ensure his older brother’s victory.

One measure of Mr.

Feeney’s extremism was Jeb Bush’s decision to dump him from the Republican

ticket in 1998, after their unsuccessful experience running together four years

earlier. Ridiculed by then-Governor Lawton Chiles as “the David Duke of Florida

politics,” Mr. Feeney’s candidacy for lieutenant governor proved to be the

excess baggage that sank the younger Bush’s challenge to Chiles in 1994.

That campaign was a fervent crusade of ideas-mostly very bad

ideas. For someone who grew up under pretty soft conditions, Jeb Bush took a

hard view of those less fortunate than himself. Flanked by Mr. Feeney, he

promised to be tough on juvenile offenders and welfare mothers. “We should have

punishment being the overriding philosophy in how we deal with children,” he

said. And according to reporters who followed his campaign, he would shock

Florida’s country-club Republicans by revealing how welfare mothers could cadge

as much as $18,000 a year to feed their families by illicitly working for cash

while they received food stamps and Medicaid.

That ugly approach led to a narrow but well-deserved defeat

for the Bush-Feeney ticket. When Jeb ran again on a platform of what Dubya

later described as “compassionate conservatism,” he carefully selected a pro-choice

woman as his running mate. It was an opportunistic decision whose necessity

even Mr. Feeney seems to have understood.

As Mr. Feeney told a reporter for Miami New Times near the end of that campaign, Jeb had wisely

modeled his new image on that of his successful Texas sibling. That shift

didn’t trouble the ultraconservative Mr. Feeney at all. “I don’t think Jeb

Bush’s belief system has changed fundamentally,” he explained.

The same might accurately be said of Jeb’s brother, the man

who would (and at this point, probably will) be President. The Bush style in

recent years has been to sugarcoat hard-right policy with a thin layer of

bipartisan rhetoric and happy talk. What lies beneath that sweet veneer is what

inspires the likes of Tom Feeney.