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Posted on Thu, Mar. 27, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Gov. Bush derides renewal of ERA debate
He calls it 'a retro subject'

pwallsten@herald.com

A national coalition of women's groups is hoping to make Florida a key battleground to renew the Equal Rights Amendment struggle, but Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday made it clear he has no interest in helping.

Bush poked fun at the ERA movement, deriding it as ''kind of a retro subject'' during a question-and-answer session with reporters.

''It's like going back and wearing bell bottoms,'' chuckled Bush, a Republican, going on to say that the quarter-century-old ERA debate is ''in the category'' of the movement by California businessman Ward Connerly to ban affirmative action through voter referendums -- a move Bush has called ``divisive.''

''To open up a debate like that would generate a lot of heat and not a lot of light,'' the governor said.

Bush's comments came as ERA advocates appeared to gain some momentum in the Florida Capitol among Democrats and Republicans alike for their move to win ratification for the amendment to be placed in the U.S. Constitution.

Advocates who have been pushing for the ERA since the 1970s argue that only three more states must ratify the amendment to seal its adoption. Thirty-five states have done so, and some legal scholars say those state votes remain effective even though they took place years ago.

Pro-ERA forces, arguing that differences remain between pay for men and women with equal jobs and qualifications, are pinning their hopes on Missouri, Arizona and Florida.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, the Miami Republican who heads the state Senate Judiciary Committee, has scheduled the measure for a vote Tuesday, which would mark the first such movement in the state Legislature on the ERA since 1982.

Villalobos said Wednesday that he wants to pass the ERA as a gift to his wife, Barbara, and his 12-year-old daughter Katie. ''How can someone oppose this?'' Villalobos asked. ``Why should my daughter not have the same opportunity as everybody else? Why should she be paid less someday?''

Backers of the legislation reacted with shock that Bush would oppose their efforts.

''The truth of the matter,'' said Sen. Gwen Margolis, the Miami Beach Democrat who is sponsoring the amendment in the Senate, ''is that women are still making less money than men in comparable jobs. It's time to make a statement that we're in a new era,'' she added.

Ratification by Florida would require the passage of a ''concurrent resolution'' by the Legislature, but does not require the governor's signature.

Still, Bush's opposition could pose a serious obstacle given the rhetorical power of his office and his influence over the Republican-led Legislature -- especially the more conservative House, where several Republican women have already signed on.

While the ERA movement is traditionally associated with the nation's more liberal causes, a modern-day debate could put the state's Republican leadership in a stressful position as Bush's brother, the president, seeks Florida's 27 electoral votes to secure his reelection.

Gov. Bush said Wednesday that he saw no need for the ERA, given modern advancements by women. He cited his own chief of staff and legal counsel, both of whom are women, and also noted that he recently appointed the state's first female lieutenant governor, former Senate President Toni Jennings.

The appointment of Jennings -- who was one of a few women to vote against the ERA when she was a state senator in 1982 and the measure failed narrowly -- was viewed in part as an effort to woo moderate, female swing voters in her politically critical home of Orlando.

''I don't see the need [for the ERA],'' Bush said. ``I don't believe women should be discriminated against, and there are laws that prohibit that.''

Women's rights advocates said Wednesday that they hoped that Jennings might change her mind and prove a helpful force inside the governor's office -- but, in an interview, Jennings did not seem interested.

''I'm not talking,'' Jennings said, when asked about her stance. ``I'm off the clock.''

Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

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