TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush emerged Thursday determined to unify his politically fractured state and to repair his own tarnished image.
His first public words after his brother George W. Bush officially won the presidency were to praise Vice President Al Gore for giving a gracious concession speech. "I want to express my admiration for Vice President Gore," Bush said at news conference here. "He set a tone for reconciliation and healing."
The Florida governor then issued a warning to partisans who might want to attack Florida Supreme Court justices, who twice gave Gore crucial victories in the disputed election, saying "no one should impugn their integrity."
Bush also announced the creation of a bipartisan task force to address questions raised about the integrity of Florida's election. He said the commission, which will report back to him in March, will examine the election "procedures, standards and technology" in all of the state's 67 counties.
"I'm pleased it's over," he said. "I know there is a lot of work to do to get back to work, and also some wounds to heal."
But it is far from over for the Florida governor. While the president-elect goes about the business of leading the nation, Jeb Bush will be left to govern a sharply divided state electorate while attempting to fend off what promises to be a national sins-of-the-brother campaign to oust him in 2002.
Already, he is the target of an organized campaign getting underway in Florida by labor unions and African American groups, including the NAACP, that allege there was widespread disenfranchisement of blacks at the polls,
At labor union rallies organized here over the past several weeks, protesters waved "Jeb Crow" signs while Jesse Jackson compared Tallahassee to Selma, although no one offered proof that Bush was behind the alleged poll problems.
"Serious financial donors from around the country are calling and saying 'whatever you need to get rid of Jeb, do it -- we'll be there,"' Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said Thursday.
The governor told reporters Thursday that he has not made up his mind whether he will run again. "I don't think much about my political future because we just had an election," he said. "I think this will subside when the cameras go home."
But leaders of African American organizations warned this week that they plan to continue lawsuits against Florida and several of its counties that charge voting irregularities, and they plan to embark next year on a voter registration drive to remind voters of the problems. The Justice Department is also launching an investigation, which Jeb Bush said Thursday he welcomed.
"Jeb is gone -- gone," vowed Mississippi state Rep. Jim Evans, who has spent the last month in Florida and is the Mississippi director of the AFL-CIO. "He is the most visible person that exemplifies what went wrong in Florida."
While the governor tried to keep a low profile during the campaign, he became entangled in the post election dispute. Senior members of his staff took time off to help the Bush team. As Gore's election contest progressed, the Florida governor praised the legislature for moving to name its own slate of Bush electors, a plan that was finally dropped Thursday. In a little noticed federal court case, lawyers for Jeb Bush argued that no court could force him to sign off on a second slate of Gore electors, a position that would have helped his brother if Congress had been forced to decide the election.
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