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Interview with Toni Van Pelt,
Florida N.O.W.

In Florida:
Affirmative Action and the Presidential Elections

St. Petersburg, Florida

Toni Van Pelt is the state president for the Florida National Organization for Women. She is also the treasurer of Floridians Representing Equity and Equality (FREE), a statewide coalition founded in 1998 to expand and improve affirmative action. The interview was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke, January 8, 2001.

They would vote against his brother

In Motion Magazine: What is the situation for affirmative action in Florida?

Toni Van Pelt: Right now, in Florida, we have a Bush as a governor and the Bush family are anti-affirmative action. He's dismantling it as fast as he can, in any way he can.

In Motion Magazine: A lot of things went on last year concerning affirmative action in Florida. How did the year end in your opinion, in regard to affirmative action?

Toni Van Pelt: Ward Connerly decided to bring his campaign into the state. Governor Jeb Bush, looking ahead to George Bush's run for president, decided that he needed to do something because he was sure that Ward Connerly would bring the women and Black community to the polls, and if they did come to the polls then they would vote against his brother. So he came up with something he called the One Florida plan.

We had the FREE coalition in place prior to Ward Connerly coming to town. We were prepared to deal with him, and we worked on a number of different fronts.

Our Supreme Court ruled Connerly's ballot language out of order. FREE's attorney argued the case before the Supreme Court, and, Bob Butterworth, our State Attorney, also presented a case before the Supreme Court. He agreed with us that the language was deceptive. He presented against Ward Connerly.

But, in the meantime, Jeb Bush had thrown together something that he called the One Florida plan which by executive order did away with affirmative action in a number of different areas in the state of Florida.

In Motion Magazine: You feel that even back then that the reason Jeb Bush was derailing the Ward Connerly campaign was because he feared the issue would bring more people out to the polls?

Toni Van Pelt: Yes. It was clear.

In Motion Magazine: What did he say about his reasons for One Florida?

Toni Van Pelt: His position was that Ward Connerly was bringing a divisive issue to the state of Florida and he wanted to stop it. He cited three court cases in which the rulings went against affirmative action. There were also court cases where the rulings were very pro-affirmative action, but he didn't talk about them. His party line, his press line, was he was going to save the state of Florida money it would pay from being sued.

All of this came about, we think, because Miami and Miami-Dade County had put on the books a pro-affirmative action law and the contractors in Miami were really upset about it. The contractors are the ones that financed Ward Connerly coming to Florida. And of course that's where Jeb Bush came from. He came from the contracting community of Miami-Dade County.

In Motion Magazine: He did?

Toni Van Pelt: He came in here like a carpetbagger. He came in here after Hurricane Andrew wiped out the Miami-Dade County area. He came in to clean up financially on the re-building.

The sit-in energized the state

In Motion Magazine: Is there going to be a pro-affirmative action initiative on the ballot?

Toni Van Pelt: One of the prongs of our strategy for 2000 was to draft our own ballot language. But it tracked Ward Connerly's initiative so when the Supreme Court outlawed his language it deep-sixed our language also.

We are having a meeting in February to set up our strategy for the next two years, and developing new ballot language is on the agenda. There's a strong possibility that we'll come up with something for that and gather signatures for it.

When we put out the language on our original petition we got a strong response. We had a relatively easy time getting the number of signatures that we needed. The Connerly people had to pay people to go out and gather up signatures.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think that the organizing that took place around affirmative action played a role in the outcome of the presidential elections?

Toni Van Pelt: Absolutely. There's just no question about it. And the way Jeb Bush did it is the way that George Bush is going to run the country. They are very arrogant. They really believe that they are royalty. They will be kings. Jeb Bush simply decided that we weren't going to have affirmative action in Florida any more.

He's a bully. Some affirmative action had to be done away with new legislation and when he didn't think, last year, that the legislature was moving fast enough he strong-armed them as he's done around abortion and other issues. It's been a nightmare having him as a governor.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think the efforts by the pro-affirmative action people also played a role in the outcome of the elections?

Toni Van Pelt: When Jeb Bush did all that we marched on Tallahassee. We had two state legislators and a NOW activist sit in the governor's office overnight because he refused to speak to any of us. We were knocking on his door and saying "We want to talk to you about this. We need for you to slow down. We need to be able to review all this." He refused to meet and discuss it with any of us.

He had never met with the Black legislative caucus or any of the women's groups over any issue from the time that he became governor. He's so arrogant. To end the sit-in he met our demands to hold public hearings and to meet with the Black legislative caucus.

The sit-in energized the state. Over 10,000 people traveled to Tallahassee at the opening day of the legislative session. We marched on Tallahassee because of his One Florida plan. Thousands of people came out to public hearings around the state. In Miami-Dade they had to move the venue because it wasn't big enough. We had 1,000 people at the first one here in Tampa. People are outraged by what he has done.

The best thing for women

In Motion Magazine: What is the position of NOW as to why you support affirmative action?

Toni Van Pelt: Because it's the best thing for women. Women have to have affirmative action laws on the books because we need to have the opportunity to have the interviews. Affirmative action opens the door for women. It gives us a way in. At least we get an interview. If we get an interview, if people will talk to us, and, of course, we are fully qualified, we are hired.

Denying legal voters the right to vote

In Motion Magazine: What is your assessment of the presidential elections in Florida?

Toni Van Pelt: It was clear immediately that Al Gore won Florida. There's no question that Al Gore won Florida and that George Bush stole the election. He won in county after county. He won Pinellas county, that's where I live. A highly Republican county. It wasn't even in question here.

I was at the polls and I saw the things that they did. I'm going to testify before the Civil Rights Commission this week in Tallahassee. I was there when they were denying legal voters in the Black community the right to vote.

In Motion Magazine: How would they do that?

Toni Van Pelt: On election day, I was at Democratic headquarters because we took the day off. That was a part of our strategy - the Arrive with Five campaign in the women's community and the Black community. We asked people to take the day off work and take people to the polls and work at the polls. We asked people to make a commitment to not only vote themselves but to be responsible for being sure that five other folks voted. We called it the "Arrive with Five" program.

Anyway, we got a phone call about 6:30pm from one of the Black precincts. We got in the car and drove over there. We got there about quarter to seven and they were dismantling the voting place. They didn't want to let us inside because they said the poll as closed. The legal closing time was 7 pm. We insisted on going inside. We didn't want to vote there we wanted to talk to the people who were inside that hadn't been allowed to vote. We went in and eight people were sitting in there who were not going to leave until they had the opportunity to vote.

In my county, Pinellas county, for some reason that still hasn't been explained, they mailed out new voting cards to everybody in the county about three months prior to the election. For no discernible reason, I didn't move, my precinct didn't move, no numbers changed. They just happened to send out these new cards. Most of these folks at the voting place had their cards.

Also this year we had to have valid ID's to prove that we were the legal voter. They had their valid ID's. But they weren't on the rolls. They weren't on the sheets of paper that came from the Supervisor of Elections office to say that they were valid voters. They were told that they couldn't vote. Even though they had their cards.

The process was supposed to be that the poll worker would call the Supervisor of Elections office and verify that this was really a voter, but golly gee whiz the Supervisor of Elections office, for part of the day, their phone didn't work. People couldn't get through to them. And for most of the rest of the day everybody was trying to get through because there were so many people at so many polls around the county that weren't on the register. There's never been any explanation for that. None.

So once we got there and started talking to these folks, they said there was nothing we could do. So I asked that we just take down everybody's name and phone number and address just as if we were at a NOW meeting, because I had never really been in that situation before. I didn't know quite what to do. I said "Tomorrow we can go to the officials and we'll know who we all are and we will let them know you were denied the right to vote."

Well, once we started taking down the names and phone numbers and addresses, they could get through to the Supervisor of Elections. They started to put the voting booths back up and those people got to vote.

Crying foul

In Motion Magazine: That's pretty blatant.

Toni Van Pelt: It was extraordinarily blatant what went on here. It's just unbelievable that this could be going on in the 21st century. It's just shocking.

And this is Pinellas county. This isn't one of those counties you heard about on television. It was systematic, across the state.

In Motion Magazine: How do you think that it happened to be systematic?

Toni Van Pelt: Because Jeb Bush is the governor of this state and it's his brother and he was going to make sure that this state was delivered to George Bush, no matter what. If this was a third world country the United states would be marching in crying foul.

In Motion Magazine: I was just listening to former President Jimmy Carter speaking to Larry King on CNN and he said that in the context of the Carter Center monitoring elections around the world, the basic accounting and voting procedures that have to be in place before his organization will agree to be an election monitor, they are such in Florida that he wouldn't even have gone to Florida to monitor the elections.

Toni Van Pelt: I believe it.

We're talking about modernizing the voting systems but there is no way we are going to get that in Florida. They like it like this. They like the state of confusion.

Empowered poll watchers

In Motion Magazine: Are you going to be proposing any specific reforms for the electoral process?

Toni Van Pelt: Yes we will. And they will be disregarded.

In Motion Magazine: What do you think should be done?

Toni Van Pelt: We think that every single county in this state should have exactly the same kind of most modern, technologically up-to-date voting system in place.

I think that we need to have officials, probably poll watchers, who are empowered to take steps. People started complaining at 7:15 in the morning about these voting irregularities while the voting was going on. And nobody would do anything about it. This can't go on ever again. We must have poll watchers in place who are empowered to take steps to make sure the voting goes on. That the laws are being followed. They should have the authority to enforce those laws right then and there.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think that the continuing efforts around affirmative action and the efforts around reform of the election laws are going to be closely related?

Toni Van Pelt: Absolutely. I think that the Voting Rights Act has been defied. Things aren't going to go away or calm down here in the state of Florida and Jeb Bush is not going to be re-elected in 2002. He's gone. He's a one-term governor. He's out of here. Which probably doesn't matter because his brother will more than likely appoint him to something in D.C. so they can ruin the rest of the United States.

In Motion Magazine: Who do you think was most hurt by these voting irregularities?

Toni Van Pelt: I think that the people of the United States of America were the most hurt. I think that a lot of people feel that. I got a Christmas card from friends in California that started out "I trust you are as disgusted with what happened in the elections as we are." These people are not activists.

I think that the people are the most hurt. I think that our democracy has been sorely hurt and stretched. I think that we've got to stand up and speak out. We can't let this presidency go on without it being challenged at every opportunity. Bush was not elected, he was selected. His presidency is illegitimate.

I'm not talking about doing away with the electoral college. There were just too many illegal things that went on and those things must be exposed.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 29, 2001.

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