Reverend tells Florida 'Off!'

By David Nyhan, Globe Columnist, 12/10/2000

EW YORK - Sitting atop a footlocker and under a conical Japanese samurai helmet, a mute beggar confronted pedestrians in Times Square during Friday morning's snow squall with an offer reflecting both the prices and the attitude that makes New York what it is:

''Tell me off for $2.'' There were no takers.

The night before, there had been plenty of telling-off in Times Square. Several thousand cheering and bellowing protesters stood patiently through rush hour at a union-organized rally capped by the Rev. Jesse Jackson's trademark denunciation of the Florida election morass.

''My friends,'' shouted the Rev, his angry countenance broadcast down Broadway by a giant jumbotron TV screen, ''This election is beneath the dignity of America.'' There was no argument from the crowd, which had been warmed up by a cadre of union chiefs. More than a hundred cops kept passersby shuffling along thronged sidewalks at the ''Count Every Vote'' rally.

Behind police barricades that stretched for four blocks, thousands massed patiently in the cold with signs ranging from ''Am-BUSH-ed,'' ''CIA Bush-man in a new coup,'' to ''Oh, now Gore's ahead, better call Brother Jeb.''

A snowball's toss away from a four-story-high billboard for a movie titled ''Armageddon,'' Jackson linked the disenfranchisement on Nov. 7 of Florida blacks to the civil rights struggle. ''Forty-five years ago this week,'' he thundered, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. It's all about ''one-person, one-vote,'' he extrapolated, and about ''every disenfranchised vote in Florida.''

He ticked off a series of election miscues and official acts that he alleged resulted in a persistent and pervasive pattern of discrimination against minority voters by a redneck establishment. ''They still keep these chains,'' local voting officials operated under the nostrum of ''your pain, my gain,'' contended the rhyming preacher. ''We deserve better than that. We will never surrender.''

While the crowd contained many more whites than blacks, its size and enthusiasm suggest that there is considerable potential political energy in the ''we wuz robbed'' theme emerging from the train wreck that was the Florida election. While television and newspaper reports dwell on the legalisms, the ponderous ''if it please the court'' presentations of the lawyers, interspersed with pictures of George W. Bush popping up in Texas, there is lava flowing under the surface that may stoke future eruptions in Florida and perhaps elsewhere.

Thanks to cable TV and the Internet, millions of Americans have unprecedented access to the entrails of the voting system. Chads, undervotes, canvassing board practices, judicial entities and enmities, all are exposed in the most searing and uncompromising light. And no bloc is more outraged by the pattern of official conduct in Florida than black America, which voted better than 9 to 1 for Gore. Jackson and millions of others seem convinced that thousands of black votes were systematically excluded in Florida.

No doubt some of the complaints about Florida can be written off as sour grapes. First-time voters confused by the infamous ''butterfly ballot'' or unaware that they shouldn't vote for more than one ticket are out of luck, and better luck next time.

But other complaints are more substantial. Just why did the police set up a traffic stop that halted 150 cars on the road leading to a black church where thousands of blacks were voting? Why didn't authorities do something about the long lines and inadequate number of voting booths in predominantly black precincts?

And details are just emerging about the systematic effort by Katherine Harris, the controversial Republican secretary of state, to purge the voting rolls of thousands of registered black voters. A British newspaper, The Guardian, reports that Harris, a Bush campaign leader, hired a GOP-connected private company to purge voting rolls of blacks, using an obscure state law dating from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era that bars felons from voting. The Guardian says some black voters guilty of no more than a misdemeanor were wrongly excluded, and in some cases innocent voters were stripped of their right to vote, caught by surprise as they went to the polls.

Governor Jeb Bush had infuriated many Florida blacks with his rollback of an affirmative action program for state universities and contracts. The election imbroglio piles fresh fuel onto a political fire that will not be quenched when he faces reelection in two years. Jeb Bush's various schemes to help make his brother president will transform his reelection fight into ''a holy war,'' in the phrase of fellow Floridian US Representative Joe Scarborough.

Or maybe an unholy war. I got the feeling in Times Square Thursday night that Jeb Bush can count on seeing a lot of Jesse Jackson in Florida year after next. And hearing a lot, too. A lot more than two bucks worth of telling-off.

David Nyhan is a Globe columnist.