Even standing in a furniture store, Jeb Bush couldn’t help but think he could do a better job running the place. “I found myself in the midst of reorganizing the logistics of a probably pretty successful company,” said Bush, who was shopping to furnish the Coral Gables apartment where he will move after leaving office Jan. 2.
Then the truth hit Florida’s most powerful governor as he thought of fixing the way the store delivers goods to customers.
“I realized they probably don’t give two hoots about my opinion,” Bush said chuckling. “So there’s going to be a little bit of a learning experience to kind of not try to solve problems for everyone. It may take a little bit of getting used to.”
That’s especially true after spending eight years as Florida’s self-fashioned policy-wonk in chief, a macro- and micromanager with poll numbers that are the envy of other chief executives — including his brother, the president.
Now, this extraordinary calm voice in Florida’s storms, a conservative icon and luminary of one of the nation’s greatest family dynasties, must become more ordinary as he fiddles with his iPod or gets annoyed in shops and the Post Office. In adjusting to a somewhat normal life, he’ll navigate Miami’s wretched traffic without a state-paid driver. But he’ll take a high-powered job somewhere, refusing to discuss his future political ambitions.
And he’ll leave office in the same fortunate way he entered it: with perfect timing.
Bush, 53, was first elected at the same time voters changed the state’s Constitution giving the governor more power. He was the first Florida governor to have a brother in the White House and was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction to work with a GOP-controlled Legislature, which ceded even more power to him.
But now looming hurricane insurance and property tax crises threaten homeowners and businesses. Florida’s economy shows signs of sluggishness, and the GOP is reeling from its worst state elections in three decades.
And Bush won’t be in the governor’s mansion amid the fallout. Nor will Bush be there when the third-graders at the center of his 1999 reading reforms graduate high school. Nor to see if the $300-plus million given the Scripps Research Institute will make Florida a research magnet. Nor to see if his Medicaid reforms work.
Then again, some of his legacy items might not last.
“Gov. Bush’s worst nightmare,” said his former spokesman Cory Tilley, “is that a new governor and a new Legislature would come in after he’s gone and try to blow up and undo all the policy changes he put into place.”
There are many: new tests for Florida schools, hundreds of state-run programs turned over to private contractors, medical-malpractice and workers compensation insurance fixes. He oversaw the successful Everglades restoration project, revamped the state’s growth management laws and its disaster plans, and eliminated a stocks-and-bonds tax while cutting a record amount of taxes — either $7 billion or $20 billion, depending on how federal tax money is calculated.
A strong state and national economy fattened Florida’s budget by 45 percent — from $49 billion when he took office to more than $71 billion this year. Bush credited his tax cuts for strong job growth, although the rate was the lowest of Florida’s past five governors.
Bush also couldn’t keep comatose Terri Schiavo alive in 2005, stop voters in 2002 from mandating smaller class sizes, or save an unconstitutional school voucher program. Many of his agency heads left in disgrace, notably his convicted bribe-taking prisons chief. The crime rate plummeted, but the child-care system was rocked by a high-profile disappearance and a few deaths.
His approval ratings remain high, bolstered by a cool captain-at-the-helm performance in the 2004-05 hurricane seasons.
Bush stayed in touch with Floridians like no other governor, corresponding with constituents by e-mail and creating Florida’s first one-stop government website, myflorida.com. His media handlers stonewalled reporters’ public-records requests, kept tabs on reporters’ conversations with agency personnel, and appended pithy titles like “One Florida” to initiatives that blended Madison Avenue marketing savvy with Pennsylvania Avenue politics.
On Bush’s desk sits a digital clock, ticking down the hours, minutes and seconds until his term ends. Last spring, he told legislators that although it was his last lawmaking session, “this is not a year for rest.”
It never is for Bush. Not in or heading out of office. Not even in the furniture store.