Jeb Bush and me: A backseat interview from 1994! INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: Jeb Bush, candidate, Florida Governor

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Click the image above to download the first chapter of Jeb Bush’s book of e-mails sent by constituents during his years as governor of Florida.

(This Jeb Bush interview originally appeared in the November 3, 1994 issue of Creative Loafing/Tampa Bay, where it was paired with a separate conversation I had with then-Democratic incumbent Governor Lawton Chiles. Chiles landed the cover–and easily won re-election. Bush made another run at the job four years later and, like Chiles, became a two-term Florida Governor, although his success was somewhat overshadowed by his older brother, George W., who was elected Governor of Texas in 1994 and President of the United States in 2000 and 2004. Now that Jeb seems fated to run for the White House himself, it seemed appropriate to dust off this plain-spoken chat. This is the first time the interview has been published online.)

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Twenty of the Republican candidate’s grass-roots supporters and potential fund-raisers met early on a beautiful May morning at Tampa’s chic Cool Beans Cafe. They picked out Danish, coffee and juice, exchanged quick introductions and hellos before settling in for an informal update from the handsome young man who would be governor, John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

Bush began with two words of encouragement, “We’re ahead!” before spying a reporter in the audience taking notes. He demanded the breakfast meeting be off-the-record. It did not seem an auspicious beginning for the one-on-one interview which followed.

As it turned out, the son of the 41st President of the United States was quite relaxed and effusive during this exclusive, hour-long interview. If he seemed at ease during the informal gathering of his supporters, he appeared no less comfortable defending and expanding upon his campaign platform with the press.

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Bush’s ideas for changing and improving life in Florida revolve around two basic, related themes: shrink state government and return local decision-making powers to local authorities.

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On specific issues, the 41-year-old husband, father of three and South Florida real estate developer doesn’t shrink from speaking his mind clearly. He supports education vouchers so parents could send their children to the school of their choice, public or private. He supports creation of charter schools with specific missions, from fundamental education to intervention programs for troubled youths. He favors specific limitations on welfare payments, tied to job training and placement. He proposes a one trial, one appeal plan for convicted murderers. And as a Valentine for his beloved real estate and development industry, the former Florida Secretary of Commerce (1987-88, under the state’s last Republican governor, Bob Martinez) proposes rewriting economically strapping environmental regulations.

There are actually two Bushes following their father into politics this season. While Jeb takes his shot in Florida, his older brother George W. is running for governor of Texas, the family’s home state. Each takes after his father in different ways; whereas George (a general partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team) inherited the former president’s capacity for handling matters with a brusque cool, Jeb (a limited partner in the new Jacksonville Jaguars NFL franchise) is affably smooth and approachable. He’s generally serious, but when he lets slip a grin, he could light up, well, Texas.

Unfortunately, Jeb Bush, like his father, also dissembles his speech pattern the more passionate he becomes. But listeners still understand his message. In spite of its fragmentation.

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BOB ANDELMANYou’re running as an outsider to Tallahassee politics. What’s the most radical thing on your plate?

JEB BUSH: The term radical has changed so much. When I first heard some of my views were radical, I kind of cringed because I never really considered myself a radical. (He laughs.) But now I’ve gotten accustomed to it because the term isn’t as radical as it once was.

Education policy is perhaps the area I’m best known for my advocacy of radical change. My welfare proposal is considered radical as well. It isn’t radical in terms of being dangerous or anything like that. It’s just that in the real world, we are compelled to re-evaluate everything we do.

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If you think in real world terms, whether you’re a small businessman, a not-for-profit or family or a major corporation, and reflect on all the changes you’ve done, and then look at government, it’s enough to get you angry. Because government doesn’t change. And our education system is a great example of that; our welfare system as well. They’re stuck in the old way. The so-called reforms are window dressing.

Are your views on education, welfare and crime somewhat skewed because you’re from Miami? Some of your proposals seem more appropriate for urban areas.

It’s a good question. My world view is shaped by my real world experiences. There’s no denying that. But if you go to Jacksonville and see the welfare system in action, the error rate, the delivery of food stamps and the benefits, it is the same as it is in Miami. If you go to Leesburg, you have the same situation.

The need to change the status quo in some parts of the state may not be as dramatic. Therefore you don’t have to change there. All I’m suggesting is you need to have a structural change so that meaningful change can happen. We need to change the structure of how we deliver education to our children. In the places where people are content with it, it doesn’t have to change. This isn’t the way it’s done now, which is, “We’re going to mandate change, by golly, we’re going to require it, we’re going to create a whole new regulatory system to impose it.” I’m suggesting we do the exact opposite. That we trust parents, teachers and principals to run the show. And that they keep running the show the way they are now and if the customers — the parents, students and teachers — are happy, fine, we’re all better off.

My guess is, though, that if you give different options to parents and teachers to turn children on in different ways you might find that we would quickly see a changed education system in Cross City as well as Hialeah.

Here is where we are; here is where we need to be. There’s a canyon in between. We need to build a bridge across to another way of doing business in education. First is to redefine the state role. Stop the power-grabbing, rule-making efforts in the Department of Education and the Legislature, the categorical funding, the rule-making process. All of this leads to tying the hands of school administrators and school teachers.

JEB BUSH excerpt: “The comparisons between myself and my dad are inevitable because of the uniqueness of the mission I’m on. I accept them and I tolerate them because it’s, y’know, I guess it’s interesting. But it has little to do with my thinking, how I think things through. It doesn’t relate to, well, what would my dad have done?”

You’ve got three school-age children. Do they attend private or . . .


Do you have any experience with your children going to public schools?

Ahhhh — nope.

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Is it fair for you to be making these decisions for . . .

Absolutely. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton moved up to Washington. Doesn’t matter that they’re big shots. The most important thing on their minds was what? What school is their daughter going to go to? That’s the way it should be. Mothers and fathers’ most important decision they make is where their children go to school. Well, in today’s system the choices are severely limited by people that don’t have the income to make the choice. If they don’t have the income they’ll go to where the monopoly, the heavily politicized, bureaucratized monopoly, tells them to go.

What I’m suggested is, the people that don’t have the income to choose ought to have that right. The very fact that my children go to private school is only a reflection of the fact that I have dough to do it. And I don’t think that’s right.

If you’re elected, what’s the first thing you will do?

Constrain government.

The first priority is to set the stage for these other changes by recognizing change will never happen unless you compel it to. Unconstrained government will never bring about the compelling need to change.

Will you freeze hiring, lay people off, close departments?

I will use all of the options you describe and others to create the climate where changes will happen.

Government should grow no faster than our ability to pay for it. Whether that’s in our constitution or not, I believe it. And I will implement that as governor. I can’t dictate how money will be spent (or) what the priorities are. That’s the Legislature’s job. But I can, I believe, in concert with the Legislature, redefine the scope and size of government. And that would be the first priority.

The second priority would be to re-prioritize spending to focus on public safety. We need to continue to build up our prison system, to revamp our juvenile justice system.

You’ve taken heat for raising more money than your competition outside the state. Can you justify that to people?

The question is, if you raise money, are you beholden to the people who give it to you? If I am, I’m beholden to 25,000 people, which is five times more than all of my worthy opponents. How can I be beholden — at some point, the logic of it starts to diminish. If I’m beholden to a housewife in Des Moines, Iowa, or a friend of mine from Chicago, Illinois, that was part of a trade mission when I was secretary of commerce and liked the way I carried out the interests of the state of Florida, or friends in Puerto Rico who I campaigned with, shoulder-to-shoulder, in 1980 when my dad was running for president — are those people somehow going to have some undue influence on me? Hogwash.

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The better question would be to ask Jim Smith, Ander Crenshaw and Tom Gallagher, “What’s your average contribution? Where do you get your money? Is it all from Tallahassee?” When I answer that question, I have a broad base of support inside this state. It allows me to dream. It allows me not to be constrained. I don’t owe anything to anybody. I have such a broad base of support financially, when it’s all said and done, my goal is to have 60 or 70,000 separate contributions. I’m going to be beholden only to my convictions and my principals.

You worked in Tallahassee before. What do you miss about the city that draws you back and what do you dread about going back?

(He laughs.) What do I miss? (Long pause.) I don’t miss much about Tallahassee. But that’s more a reflection of my own personality. I’m mission-driven. I try to keep a sense of proportion and history in my life. I have fond memories of Tallahassee but I don’t miss anything about it.

What do I dread about going back? Very little. If I’m privileged enough to be elected and then serve, it would be the most exciting, most fulfilling thing that I could ever imagine. I would miss Miami, because that’s my hometown. I love Miami. I love the climate, I love the people. I love the diversity of Miami. But I wouldn’t dread going to Tallahassee. I would look forward to it with great enthusiasm.

Bob Martinez was roughed up pretty good in Tallahassee. He had a hard time working with a Democrat-dominated Legislature. Can a Republican take charge if the legislative majority is still dominated by Democrats?

I’m aware of the constraints on the power of the office. By constitution, the office of the governor has less power than in other states. But I’m also aware of the tremendous non-constitutional powers that a governor has. If the governor is focused on basic principles and can communicate those principles to people . . . I believe fundamental changes can happen, irrespective of the Legislature.

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Now, having said that, would it be easier, would there be less bloodshed to accomplish this with people who think like I do in the legislative process? Absolutely. And that is part of the process. That’s why it takes eight years. You have elections every two years that can change the makeup of the Legislature. Term limits will do that as well, making it more reflective of current thinking. And a governor can certainly shape the makeup of the Legislature as well.

JEB BUSH excerpt: “(George and I are) very different personality-wise. But, you know, we’re brothers so there’s comparisons as well. I think our motivations might be similar. My brother is feisty. He has a quicker temper than I do. He’s earthier. (He laughs.). He’s older. He’s shaped by different thinking.”

As a developer yourself, what will you do to help real estate in Florida?

I don’t say, “Well, I’m a real estate guy and I think the real estate industry needs to get a better deal.” I don’t go around saying that because I don’t necessarily believe it in the specific that real estate is any different than any other business. What I do say is there needs to be, in regulation, a legitimate and sincere appraisal of the economic impacts of regulation. But if you look at the documents measuring economic impact, it’s a farce, a joke. There’s no thoughtful appraisal of this so we never have a cost-benefit for regulations or environmental policies that are crafted. They are well-intended but are dealt with in a vacuum. That would probably help the real estate business.

Private property rights, I think, need to be embedded in our constitution or legislatively, one of the two. The right to own property is protected, it’s part of our Bill of Rights. I think it ought to be protected in the post-modern era where government extends its influence now way beyond our Founding Fathers’ wildest dreams, mandating and regulating the use of private property. The constant pressures being brought on real estate — user fees, transaction taxes and licensing fees — like all businesses, people are nickeled and dimed to death. It is, again (he sighs) well-intentioned efforts to try to implement public policy but in an unconstrained way. If you constrained government, I think it would be easier for people in the real estate business to make ends meet.

Some of the industry has had a tough time adapting to concurrency, comp plans, etc. Are there any aspects of these that you would want to go backwards on?

I hope it wouldn’t be defined as “backwards” because that’s kind of a losing position to me. No one wants to go backwards on something.

I think redefining the state role in the growth management process is a progressive act, not a regressive one. That’s my point. And I do advocate sheering the powers of the water management boards and the DCA and the DEP as it relates to the growth management process.

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I guess I trust people more than most folks in government do. And I trust communities more than state government does. And I think it’s important to solve problems — it is tough enough to solve problems in a political/public context already. All these competing interests, the press — the system we created is hard to solve problems in. There are reasons for that, some of which are important — the public’s right to know. Then to make it more difficult by taking the problem-solving process and trying to do it at the state level rather than the local level makes it near impossible. Growth management is perhaps one of the best areas where this occurs. How does Tallahassee really know what’s in the best interests of Hillsborough County? I’ve talked to folks in the county government here — very few places in the country have a man with Mr. Karl’s experience and talent. There’s no one in Tallahassee that can match that guy. And the county manager in Pinellas County is a man of extraordinary experience and abilities as well. As I go around, I find the folks in local government are capable of determining land use policies and therefore the future of their communities. And I would work to push responsibility down to the local level and away from Tallahassee. Absolutely.

I consider that to be a progressive act that is protective of Florida’s future. Florida — we need a vision statement. In the real world, we have them all the time. I mean, even our families — we may not put it on the wall the way we do in business but people focus on things like that. In government, we don’t. In our state, we don’t. My belief is that Florida should be a state of diverse and prosperous communities. It is a reflection of who we are. It matches the context and texture of our state. Our state has got great communities and they are diverse. We’ve got to focus on making them all prosperous. That’s the role of state government: find ways for prosperity, in the long run, to be the constant. That will happen better by allowing communities to shape their vision of what their land use processes are, what their social service delivery system is, how their schools look. That does shape communities more than anything else.

JEB BUSH excerpt: “The very fact that my children go to private school is only a reflection of the fact that I have dough to do it. And I don’t think that’s right.”

Is it ironic or intentional that you’re calling for a “vision statement?” That, of course, is something people felt your father didn’t understand the need for. Is it something you learned from his campaign?

No. I’ll tell you about my dad’s so-called lack of vision. His lack of vision in Washington — if you don’t have the vision of the elite, the guys that run the show, you don’t have vision. And I think that, more than anything else, described the lack of a “vision thing.” In Washington, if you believe in certain things and it goes against the will of the combination of the folks that call the shots there — and it’s not the president, except in foreign affairs, there the president does have a disproportionate say and there my dad, I think, had a pretty clear vision that people did agree with. There, if your vision isn’t the one they like, you don’t have one. It’s totally discarded.

Look, I’m not — there’s a light year, two light years, between 1992 and 1994. 1992 — its value is to learn from the lessons of history. To relive ’92, to fight past wars — it is not my intention of giving up everything I have, being away from my family — that happened. That’s over with. It’s important to learn from it; there are lessons there in terms of governance as well as politics and I intend to use ’em. But I’m really focused. The comparisons between myself and my dad are inevitable because of the uniqueness of the mission I’m on. I accept them and I tolerate them because it’s, y’know, I guess it’s interesting. But it has little to do with my thinking, how I think things through. It doesn’t relate to, well, what would my dad have done?

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What about comparisons between you and your brother George? Both of you are running for governor of a state at the moment and both of you are involved in owning pro sports teams. Are there other similarities, differences?

We’re very different personality-wise. But, you know, we’re brothers so there’s comparisons as well. I think our motivations might be similar. My brother is feisty. He has a quicker temper than I do. He’s earthier. (He laughs.). He’s older. He’s shaped by different thinking.

Just coincidence you’re both running this year?

Oh, yeah, it is.

Were you already on the campaign trail when he decided to run?

Yes. I started earlier, much earlier. I made up my mind I was going to run in January of ’93. I start campaigning, effectively, half-time between early March and July and full-time on July 1st. I don’t recall exactly when I got the word from my brother but it was after that. I’m not sure exactly when he made up his mind, but we came at this from a totally different track. And his approach has been very different. He’s running as a different person; the state of Texas is a totally different state than the state of Florida. It’s an interesting thing, I’m not denying it. We’re both sons of the same former president and we’re both running for governor. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before.

How are you and your brother splitting up your parents’ attention with two campaigns going?

I don’t know what my mom and dad are doing for George. But when you take it in view of the full campaign it’s very limited, for a couple reasons. One, there’s a balance that I’m aware of, that you need to maintain. I didn’t ask my parents to come in and help me out until I clearly established myself as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in every aspect, both in terms of the advocacy of powerful ideas that people have responded to, and out-raising the other candidates in terms of money raised. From the beginning I’ve out-raised all of them by a significant amount, and by the polling data that other people have done and that we’ve done. So I wanted to establish myself first. And even with that, my opponents will say, well, my mommy and daddy are making it happen, which is ludicrous. But that allows them to vent their frustrations on me like I’m giving them therapy and it’s important.

Will we see more of them as the Republican primary draws closer?

No. Maybe one time, I don’t know. There has to be a proper balance to this. They will come and campaign for me again. I want them to and I’m sure they’ll want to help. But I think it’s important to do it the right way.

My mom and dad have done this since prehistoric times. Let’s give them a break. This is their chance to do things that, because they’ve been serving their country, they haven’t had a chance to do. And I don’t want to impose on them for that reason as well.

My mother and my dad will play a role in the campaign. They’ll help me out.

What’s the best advice either of them has given you, for life in general or politics in particular?

Well, there’s too many to repeat. “Being a parent isn’t all the big things, it’s the little things.” “A good parent is consistent and repetitive and uncompromising in the transference of values.” Little things like shaking people with a firm handshake and look them in the eye. Being polite and respectful of others. Or, “Open a door for someone that’s your elder.” Starting from that sense of civility all the way to what is right and what is wrong, how do you measure success in life? Those were all done in little tiny increments. My parents passed the test of good parents. Believe me, they have been spectacular in that regard.

In terms of politics, I guess the best advice I ever got from my dad was when I was thinking of running for office in 1986. He asked me, in a rapid-fire series of questions: “What happens if you win? Are your children ready to go to school in Washington?” I was thinking about running for Congress. “Is Columba ready to be the wife of a congressman?” The questions weren’t related to Congress, they were related to life. And what made it clear was, are you abdicating your responsibility as a husband and a father to do this? It was a subtle — but very effective — way to slap me across the face and say, (He affects his father’s tone of voice.) “Boy, don’t be a fool.” (He laughs.) I thought about 30 seconds and realized no matter what the polls might have said or the strategies, I near completely forgot there are three or four hurdles you have to jump over before you aspire to something that’s a sacrifice for your family. That, my dad reminded me of.

• • • • •

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During the course of this interview, candidate Bush was asked to single out regional issues or problems he expects to face if elected.

Tampa Bay area: Water use. The allocation of water, how to create incentives to save it, re-use options, conservation options. How do we allow the agricultural interests to continue to provide its major contribution to the economy here? How do people that live here get to use water? Disproportionately, I seem to hear that more and more here than in other places.

Orlando and Central Florida: Tourist issues are critical there because of its dominance to the economy. People connect more in Orlando the crime issue to economic livelihood. That’s pretty unique there. Crime is an issue pretty much across the state but not as it relates to “How am I going to put food on the table?”

Jacksonville: Jacksonville’s got a real focus on crime issues as well, particularly juvenile crime. And I think the people on the borders understand the business climate issue better because there’s a more visible direct loss of jobs to the neighboring states. Jacksonville has always had a main focus on economic issues: workers’ comp, taxing, spending. Environmental issues — the paper mills there have done a spectacular job of reinvesting in equipment to lessen pollution but there’s constant threats from regulations making it hard for those really high value-added jobs to stay in place.

And of course, how the Jaguars are going to do is a big issue. (He grins.)

Tallahassee: (He laughs.) Tallahassee is a government town. They’re going to be directly impacted by who the next governor is. The general attitude in Tallahassee is it’s a no-growth state, a no-growth kind of community, and they certainly are going to get it if I’m elected governor. Because I don’t think government should grow to the extent that it has. That may not assuage any of their fears, but … I think there should be some emphasis on diversifying the economy in Tallahassee. It’s a great place to live; nice setting. They’ve got a good quality of life, highly trained folks. It should be a place that would draw value-added jobs.

The Panhandle: The biggest issue there is growth and the defense industry. The two big issues I see are the balance between environmental and economic growth concerns. Because the Panhandle, parts of it, at least, between Pensacola and Panama City, along the shoreline, there appears to me to be long-term growth. The impact of that on the infrastructure and the environment are going to become increasingly important.

The Panhandle is blessed with a lot of military, both retirees as well as military bases. It’s very important for this state to prepare for the upcoming base closure commission efforts. Nothing is sacred anymore as it relates to defense spending. It’s the one place the government does seem able to cut. And the governor gets to be on the forefront to help these communities defend their interests.

Southwest Florida: Fort Myers, Naples: The issues are related to growth and education. How do you build the school system? Growth brings about the expansion of government in lots of ways. I think they’ve got their act together. You see how communities are being shaped by the attitudes in communities, and how, if they had more power, it would be even more that way. There’s a real difference between Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties. The culture is different, income levels are different, the demographics are different. There’s an emerging identity in each one.

South Florida: Crime is the No. 1 issue. Immigration. Water.

Water is not an issue that is discussed around kitchen tables as much as it will be. Water is one of the emerging issues of the ’90s. In the next four or five years it’s going to become apparent that how we conserve, how we distribute and use water is antiquated. We’ve got challenges ahead. And in South Florida it’s more particularly acute because of the Everglades. The drainage issue — in Southeast Florida we have created a community of 4-1/2 million people. And when God created South Florida, I don’t think there was an expectation that that many people would be inhabiting it.

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