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Bush record mixed on women and children's issues

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: By the numbers, Governor George W. Bush is undoubtedly popular among Texas women. Two out of three female voters cast their ballots for him during his 1998 re-election campaign, including Taffy Goldsmith, a grandmother and long-time Dallas Republican activist.

Taffy Goldsmith, Bush Supporter: I think his mother has brought him up well (laughs). Of course, his dad has too, has set the proper imagery for him; but I think also his development as he has grown. He is one who can look at himself introspectively and say, you know, how can I better myself. He is a strong disciplinarian.

Sprague: Goldsmith says she likes the Governor's manners, his attention to protocol, and his character; but she voted for him most of all because she likes his policies.

Goldsmith: I chose him on the basis of Republican principles: less government, more efficiency in government, better appointments.

Sprague: But in his campaign for President, Bush lags behind Vice President Al Gore among women voters, by as much as nine points, according to the most recent poll from The Pew Center for People and the Press. Some of this gender gap may be driven by the governor's record on so-called traditional women's issues. The Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington D.C. recently polled 800 American women as part of its Women's Voices 2000 initiative to find out what those issues are. Linda Tar-Whelan is the Center's president.

Linda Tar-Whelan, President, Center for Policy Alternatives: What we find at the top of the list is equal pay with benefits and then secondly, juggling family with work. And it's true of every age of women, it's true of every ethnic group. These are the issues that are top on women's minds.

Sprague: In other words, says Whelan, women are most concerned about being treated fairly and taking care of their families. So how does that transfer to Governor Bush's record on women and children in Texas? Anne Moseley, who helped lead the Women's Voices initiative, says look at key statistics the survey gathered.

Anne Moseley, Women's Voices 2000: In terms of the wage gap and starting businesses, women are doing fairly well in Texas compared to the national statistics. However, in areas where women have great anxieties such as health care - insurance for themselves, their family or their children - Texas does rank near the bottom.

Sprague: One in five women in Texas has no health insurance. Neither do a quarter of the state's children. And that number has steadily increased since Bush took office, making Texas one of the worst states in which to raise a child, according to the Children's Rights Council, a national child advocacy group. Since Governor Bush took office, Texas has fallen from 29th to 48th among the states. But once Democrats began distributing those figures, the Children's Rights Council, which has become more aligned with conservative politics, claimed its most recent study was outdated and refused to issue additional copies. Bush spokesperson Linda Edwards insists the numbers on insured children have improved since CHIP, the state's program to help working poor families, went into effect this year.

Linda Edwards, Bush Spokesperson: And so far in Texas we have signed up over 100,000 children to this plan in six months, and so we're hoping by this time next year, we'll have almost 430,000 children in Texas covered by the Children's Health Insurance Plan.

Sprague: CHIP insures kids whose families earn up to 200% of the federal poverty level, or $34,000 a year for a family of four, like most other states in the program. But State Representative Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston who is the Vice-Chair of the Public Health Committee, remembers Governor Bush wanting to restrict the number of children who qualify for CHIP.

Garnet Coleman, State Representative: He pushed for 150% of poverty. He started prior to that at 133% of poverty. Members of the House and Senate said they wanted 200% of poverty. The governor stuck to 150% of poverty and as, he said to one of my colleagues, "You stuffed it down my throat."

Sprague: Coleman says if Bush's plan had prevailed, more than 200,000 children would have remained ineligible for state-sponsored health insurance. Still, the Governor's spokesperson boasts of Bush's record on children's issues. Linda Edwards praises Bush's emphasis on education, and indeed, test scores - particularly among minorities - are up. And she says the Governor's guiding principle has been to give Texas families a hand up, not a hand out.

Edwards: We've seen our welfare rolls in Texas drop 50%. We've seen welfare reform be successful in Texas in terms of moving people from welfare to work.

Sprague: But many provisions supported by Bush, such as the so-called personal responsibility clauses, would have erased some benefits for needy children. Garnet Coleman remembers one provision that would have cut off an entire family's state aid if a parent were caught with drugs.

Coleman: Which would mean that the children would be cut off from their cash grant as well. So we all saw it as something that was very extreme, since we shouldn't penalize the children for the actions of the parents, considering that's the money the parents use to buy clothes, shoes, diapers and anything else that's a dry good that the child needs. It was just unnecessary.

Sprague: On the issue of abortion, critics point out Governor Bush signed seven measures restricting the procedure in the last legislative session. Family planning funds, which go toward counselors and birth control, have also dropped 40%. The Governor's office attributes that to a decline in federal dollars. But Kae McLaughlin, the executive director of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, says the decline is indicative of the Governor's attitude toward birth control.

Kae McLaughlin, Executive Director, Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League: I think one of the best indications of where Bush stands on this was his appointment of Reyn Archer as the Texas Commissioner of Health. Of eight candidates, Archer was the second worst, the second most anti-choice, the second who is on record as opposing contraceptives for women, who feels like family planning is not a good investment.

Sprague: Before he was health commissioner, Archer admitted telling a family planning counseling that the birth control pill gave women too much power. Archer resigned from his post yesterday, after allegations that he made racist and sexist remarks to a former health department employee. Bush was critical of Archer's alleged comments. While Governor Bush didn't appoint Archer, he did approve the nomination and, according to Archer, pushed him to apply. In appointing women, Governor Bush has gone beyond his Republican predecessors. He's filled just over one in three positions with women. That's a decline from the Ann Richards administration, when women received almost half of the appointments. But Bush spokesperson Linda Edwards defends the Governor's record.

Linda Edwards: If you look at Governor Bush's senior staff, that is the ten people or so who are his closest advisors, half of them have been women. For example, his most important senior advisor and specialist on education is a woman. His general counsel is a woman.

Sprague: Bush's state and campaign spokespeople are also women, who say the governor's record on women and children speaks for itself. Critics say the same thing, but believe the Governor is taking credit for popular legislative initiatives he tried to stymie. And they say on the campaign trail, he has dodged responsibility for the unflattering parts of that record altogether. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.