Jeb Bush, Florida’s most famous son, will become the state’s next governor with a Republican sweep of Tallahassee and an unprecedented pledge by his party to celebrate the diversity of Florida and “leave no one behind.” Bush’s handy victory Tuesday over Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay makes Florida the first Southern state this century to hand both its governor’s office and Legislature to the Republican Party.
“This is a victory for doing things a new way, and I’m excited about that,” Bush said after MacKay conceded defeat in a phone call.
“This is a victory for inclusion, rather than exclusion, for offering hope rather than dividing,” said Bush, standing with black Democratic lawmakers who had endorsed him.
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The inauguration Jan. 5 of John Ellis Bush, 45, will broaden a dynasty, seating the two oldest sons of former President George Bush as governors of two of the nation’s largest states — George W. Bush easily won reelection as governor of Texas on Tuesday and is aiming his sights at the presidency. They are the first brothers to serve concurrently as governors since Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller led Arkansas and New York nearly three decades ago.
The former president and his wife, Barbara, made a surprise evening visit to Miami, joining their second son for a boisterous hotel victory party.
This is a retirement notice for MacKay, 65, lieutenant governor for the past eight years and a former state legislator and congressman from Ocala who failed twice in bids for the U.S. Senate in the 1980s. In losing to Bush, MacKay faces his third loss in a career marked by kudos for prowess in handling tough problems but inability to win statewide office on his own.
At the downtown Orlando Marriott, a sad but exuberant crowd cheered the man they admired, even in defeat.
“I have called Jeb Bush,” MacKay told his supporters. “We disagree on a lot of things but he’s governor-elect and we’re all Floridians. What he’s trying to do for the state of Florida, I’m going to help him and I call upon every Democrat in the state of Florida to help him.”
Bush ran strong in virtually every corner of the state except the Democratic strongholds of Broward and Palm Beach counties, which MacKay carried.
Voters News Service exit polls showed MacKay claiming 90 percent of the black vote — but not the 95 percent Chiles had cornered. Bush pulled about 60 percent of the Hispanic vote and enjoyed an 8-to-1 margin among voters who describe themselves as conservative.
Working for six years
With characteristic energy, Bush will waste no time with the task Floridians have assigned him: planning today to spell out his timetable for assembling a new administration, his transition from the private life of a wealthy developer to Florida’s first governor of the 21th Century.
Then he will take his family — Mexican-born wife Columba, Homestead schoolteacher George, college student Noelle and ninth-grader Jeb — on a long deferred, long weekend’s vacation at Ponte Vedra Beach. “Political years are like dog years,” Bush said. “I’m 500 years old, I’ve done this so long.”
He has been at this for six years, deciding soon after his father’s failure at reelection in 1992 that he would seek Florida’s highest post without any prior experience in elective office.
The revival of Jeb Bush, after losing his first bid to Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994 by the narrowest of margins ever, is a modern-day classic of lessons learned the hard way, and a campaign carried out with precision and all the money the Republican Party could muster.
“He did a good job . . . in presenting himself in a more complex, nuanced and fulfilling way than he did before,” said Mike Murphy, 36, a media guru from Virginia who helped repackage the candidate with an $8 million TV ad campaign placing a premium on warmth.
Bush reexamined not only his strategies, but also himself. He reemerged with a softer, more compassionate vision for making Florida’s schools “world-class,” its government more caring for “the weak, the sick and the poor.”
Widening his appeal
He campaigned in precincts, appealing to voters black and white, where Republicans seldom have tread.
Dorothy McCray, 75, a black woman from Liberty City, voted for Bush: “Because he’s young and he seems pretty fair. He’s a Republican and I usually vote Democratic, but I did it because he said he was for all people.”
A postponed visit
“I want people who view this as service,” said Bush, taking time Tuesday to slip away quietly to Cooper City High School in Broward County for a visit with a friend’s daughter that was postponed during his campaign.
LuzElena De La Rosa-Aponte, 17, has severe disabilities. Bush, who traveled to more than 200 schools during his campaign, has learned about special needs such as “Lucy’s” this way, her mother Berthy says: “He’s been very sensitive. . . . He wanted to learn.”
Bush could always count on the nostalgic calling card of a name with credentials in Florida’s fast-growing Republican community.
“They’re the type of people that you’d like to know,” said Jean Bohan, a Fort Myers retiree who moved to Florida 31 years ago from Connecticut and voted for Bush’s grandfather as a U.S. senator. “They’re decent people for starters, and they have an eye for the future of America the way it was — decency, morals, all the stuff you don’t see today.”
A sense of humanity
The challenge, for Bush, was conveying a sense of humanity to a broader voting public which saw him, four years ago, as a candidate promising to expedite the death penalty and promote a staunchly conservative agenda, a businessman whose private dealings occasionally associated him with swindlers.
Democrats succeeded four years ago in defining Bush as a well-heeled son of Yankee gentry who moved from Houston to Miami in 1980 as his father was becoming vice president and making a personal fortune with the family name.
“There has been an interest in my journey, my growth,” Bush said. “I think that relates to our generation too. The generation of my dad was not too reflective, they didn’t sit and meditate on their navels. They were doers. We are more therapeutic. There is a fascination with just, who you are.”
At the same time, Bush’s consultants were determined to inoculate their candidate from the assaults they could expect from MacKay. In May, starting with the last episode of Seinfeld, the Republican Party started airing ads portraying Bush with a family and a black Labrador retriever.
The party, with nearly $20 million raised from wealthy interests ranging from Texas oilmen to Florida business tycoons, decided to define the Democratic nominee for voters before MacKay could make his own name known.
“One of the things we found out in our early polling is that people didn’t know much about Buddy,” said Murphy, who waged the media campaigns for four winning Republican governors this year and upped a career record to 18-2 in races for governor and the Senate.
The theme of a party-financed ad campaign — “He’s not my Buddy” — played in a vacuum, MacKay’s own inability to broadcast a theme of his own.
The theme resounded with Deborah Baldwin, 37, a black voter in Opa-locka who sided with Bush: “I like his commercials. I thought they were cute. I’d sit at home and laugh at them sometimes. Y’know that one that says ‘He’s not my Buddy’?”
While hammering Bush’s support of public money for private schools, opposition to abortion and stance against a constitutional amendment offering counties greater control over firearms, MacKay never articulated a reason to vote for him other than his service, “experience you can trust.”