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Fighting for a spot

Tuesday marks the day that Florida Democrats will go to the polls to vote for one of three candidates: Bill McBride, Daryl Jones or Janet Reno. It also marks the day who may or may not take the Democratic party all the way to Tallahassee.

In an interview with all three candidates, each weighed in with their thoughts about Bright Futures Scholarships, tuition increases, Sami Al-Arian and their chances of beating each other.

Education:

McBride said his main reason for joining the gubernatorial race was to change and improve Florida’s schools. McBride also says Gov. Bush had poor priorities for education, and he says he is committed to making it better.

“I think the current governor has not emphasized the right things, and so I am very interested in the people in college (and) professors. They all have a stake in what happens and are directly affected by who’s in charge,” McBride said.

Reno said her main goal is to make sure students who have the academic qualifications to go to college get to college. Even if they can’t afford it.

“I want to encourage all scholarship opportunities (such as Bright Futures),” she said. “Whenever it is possible to go straight through (college), it would save everyone a lot of money if they could go right through the summer and graduate.”Jones said he was one of the first to sponsor the Bright Futures Scholarship.

“I was a freshman senator, and we didn’t do it the first year. Some of the senior senators said, ‘Don’t let a freshman do that. That thing is too important,'” Jones said. “So the next year, I gave it to some senior senators, and we got it done.”

In 1997, the Florida government created the Bright Futures Scholarship. The government decided that in order to have money to support Florida’s top students, it would take funds created by the Florida Lottery and pump it back into education.

Jones said, if elected, the Bright Futures Scholarship would be protected, and possibly, expanded. On Jones’ Web site, he lays out eight ways to raise revenue for education and scholarships, such as Bright Futures, without raising taxes. For example, Jones wants to offer more courses over the Web and reduce tuition associated with those courses.

“Hopefully, as much as a third less than you pay for normal tuition,” he said. “It would help a lot of students, and I think a lot of students would be excited about that.”

McBride said he feels that Gov. Bush made a mistake with changing the Bright Futures Scholarship program.

“I think that it let a lot of people down who counted on that program for the summer,” he said. “Basically, what you’ve got to do is have a governor who really cares about the public universities and public schools. This governor talks about it a lot but hasn’t been willing to make investments, and he has been stuck in this ideological road of no investment and not trying to make things better.”

Reno said she believes that anyone can graduate, go on to get a good job, contribute to the economy and make a difference. Taking a look at tuition, Bright Futures and other scholarships, Reno said she wants to balance all of them so that a college education is a reality for everyone.

However, summer courses are hard to come by these days due to budget cuts and lack of funds, and Reno said the fact that many students raised the issue with her should warrant a re-evaluation of the requirement.

“Gov. Bush promoted the budget to be balanced this last session of the Legislature with non-recurring revenue, which will not be available next year,” Reno said.

McBride said he wasn’t sure how he feels about the nine summer credits Florida university students must earn to graduate. He said that as a student, he depended on summer sessions to keep him on track, and he knows “how important it is.”

Along with summer classes, other important issues for McBride, Reno and Jones are college tuition and supporting Sen. Bob Graham’s amendment to get better coordination among the 11 state universities.

“In state universities, tuition increases. You have to be careful with them. You don’t want education out of reach,” McBride said. “These are public universities, and we have to support them publicly.”

Jones said Sen. Graham’s amendment has promise and that Gov. Bush did not make the amendment to appoint a K-12 education commissioner clear to voters in 1998.

“The governor has been fairly disingenuous when it comes to constitutional amendments in general,” he said. “But should we have a separate governing body for the university system? You bet. And this governor has put us in this position, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said.

McBride has supported Sen. Graham and his amendment from the beginning. He said Florida’s universities should be competing with university systems in other states, not against each other.

“The way the governor has it set up and organized it, to what I understand, was over dinner one night on the back of a napkin,” he said. “He really has the universities competing with each other, and I think that is wrong.”

Reno said she, too, agrees with Sen. Graham’s amendment and thinks it can be the key to a better educational system.

“I think it can serve an important purpose baring that we do not have duplication of costly programs or equipment,” Reno said. “I think it can do much to retain the qualities of the new system and to have better coordination for the system as a whole.”



Sami Al-Arian:

Sen. Jones said he has not read in great detail about Sami Al-Arian, the USF computer science professor and his alleged links to terrorist organizations, but questions whether there is substantial evidence that would really connect him to terrorism.

“You don’t impinge upon his academic freedom under any circumstances, unless he is in clear and present danger of some type,” he said. “But unless those types of things are viable, then you’ve got to let him speak his mind. I believe in academic freedom.”

Serving almost eight years as the United States attorney general, Reno has overseen many federal cases. One of those is Al-Arian’s case. In Dec. 2000, Reno approved the release of his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who had been jailed for three years on secret evidence.

“As an attorney general, I had access to the files, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” she said.

McBride said he is familiar with the national story but has watched it from afar. He said he thinks President Judy Genshaft made the right decision to take the issue to court.

“It probably was smart to get somebody to look at (the situation) real hard because academic freedom is very important,” McBride said.

The Competition:

Reno said she believes in making Florida’s younger generation aware of the political scene.

“I think it is important to go to colleges and talk about political issues so they can get involved,” Reno said. “For too long we have taken democracy for granted. It is important that all of us are involved.”

Jones said the younger groups inspire him to groom future leadership. He is so inspired that, if elected, he would reserve one of his 12,000 appointments for a 20-year-old.

“I wanted to make sure they have the opportunities to grow and get mentored by people who have been around for awhile and can learn how Florida works,” he said.

Jones said being involved with younger people is important when running for governor because they vote, too.

“One of the things I was very frustrated about when I was (a college student) was that elected officials didn’t pay attention to younger people and didn’t because in their mind it was the older people 35 and over who voted,” Jones said. “I have never done that. I have always focused and made sure that part of my focus was with the younger groups.”

In the recent weeks, Gov. Bush has been running television advertisements against McBride, who said Bush feels threatened because he knows that come November, if he wins the primary, he can give the governor a run for his money. That, he says, is why he feels the Republican party is trying hard to persuade Democrats to vote for Reno or Jones.

“I think it is actually flattering, but it won’t work,” he said. “I mean, Democrats are not going to let the Republicans choose who their nominee is. I think they believe, and I believe too, that get me down into the fall and I’ll beat Jeb Bush.”

If elected, Jones would be the first African-American to be in the state’s top executive position. He said race has not been an issue with his campaign.

“I think I have come to this race extremely well-prepared. People vote in their best interest, and that is why I have been elected the first African-American 11 times (in the senate),” Jones said.

Before her appointment to be attorney general, Reno served as Miami-Dade’s state attorney for five years. During her time as attorney general, Reno faced a tough call in making a decision about Elian Gonzalez, a child refugee from Cuba. Despite her connection with Miami, Reno decided the boy would be better back in Cuba, which many say will hurt her chances to become the state’s governor. But she says the majority of the population in Miami is Republican anyway.

“I think I will receive a substantial amount of the vote that I would have received anyway,” she said. “I received so much support around the state for the decision I made from others that I think, in the end, I come out stronger.”

Elian Gonzalez isn’t the only thing voters are worried about. Reno’s health has also been taken into consideration.

“I have Parkinson’s disease, and before I made a decision to run for governor, I went to my doctors and asked if it would impact me being governor, and they said no,” Reno said. “My doctors have made themselves available to answer any questions people may have.”

In the End:

Gov. Bush’s approval rating remains above 50 percent, according to an article in the St. Petersburg Times Thursday, and he has raised nearly $6 million more than Reno and McBride have raised combined.

Recent polls show McBride slightly favored over Reno, with Jones in third. But neither of the candidates has changed his or hers campaign because of the polls.

“The poll that counts is Tuesday, and I am working really hard straight through the end,” McBride said.

Reno agrees.

“The polls don’t tell the story; the votes tell the story, and trying to reach out to the voters in a grass roots campaign is making real progress,” she said.

As for Jones, the polls after the last debate showed him winning.

“(In) every poll that asked who won the debate, I got over 50 percent,” he said. “Another poll asked who should represent the Democrats in the general election. I got 39 percent. Reno, 33 percent, and the rest went to McBride.”


Contact Stefanie Greenat oraclestefanie@yahoo.com