Jeb Bush hopped on a podium Saturday night and stood behind a microphone.
But this was not a presidential campaign event. And he was not the star.
The fundraising gala at a ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables celebrated the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence Foundation. Bush’s role: to introduce the evening’s keynote speaker — his wife, Columba Bush.
For what she called her first speech during her husband’s presidential campaign, Bush didn’t choose a made-for-TV backdrop of “Women for Jeb!” or “Latinos for Jeb!” (She was born in Mexico.)
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Instead, the fiercely private former Florida First Lady addressed a room full of domestic-violence shelter directors and their financial backers about her passion for the cause, one of several she embraced 16 years ago in Tallahassee after her husband, the newly elected governor, advised her not to spread herself too thin.
“He said to focus on no more than three issues so that my work could be meaningful and impactful,” she told the 200 people in attendance.
Then she ticked off her choices: art, because she had worked with the Ballet Folklórico de México and wanted to advocate for artistic education for children; substance abuse, “because our family was impacted” by it, she said, without mentioning her daughter Noelle’s past struggles with drugs; and domestic violence, because she met a woman named Tiffany Carr who took Bush to a women’s shelter for the first time. Carr is executive director of the foundation that hosted Saturday night’s soiree.
“I will never forget the first shelter I visited,” Bush said. “As Tiffany and I left the shelter, I said, ‘OK, what can we do?’”
Bush has warmed up to her role as a 2016 Republican presidential contender’s wife by using the renewed attention on her to highlight the issues she cares for passionately, the ones she can confidently speak about without having to delve too much into politics.
She’s appeared on stage with her husband on several occasions, especially in Miami, and has traveled to early caucus and primary states — though often quietly, with little public notice, to tend to her causes while campaigning for the candidate.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, Bush dropped by a local women’s crisis center. In Las Vegas, it was a drug-rehab clinic (that happens to be owned by the wife of a highly sought after GOP political donor, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson). She has penned several op-eds and continued to her philanthropic work.
Bush never craved the attention that comes with marrying into a political family. Some longtime Jeb Bush fans had figured he wouldn’t run for president because of his wife’s aversion to the spotlight.
She acknowledged some of her reticence to the crowd, which included the couple’s youngest son, Jeb Jr., and several state lawmakers who back Bush’s presidential bid.
“Like most of you, I like to communicate one on one, randomly, without the glare of the public light,” she said. “Most of you have never heard me give a speech before.”
But her husband seeks the White House, and Columba Bush said she’s committed to getting him there: “I know that my husband’s the best person to help this country that I love.”
Last week, Jeb Bush held a roundtable on the domestic violence in New Hampshire — “it’s a little state up in the North,” he joked — and told the story of one of the women he met, abused by her husband to the point that he crashed a private plane into their home.
His point: Domestic violence doesn’t only affect the poor.
Bush made a point of saying he wasn’t campaigning. “Trying to separate church and state here,” he said.
Yet he couldn’t help touting the domestic-violence work he did as governor, for which he credited his wife: toughening jail penalties for abusers and boosting state funding, resulting in a drop in the domestic-violence crime rate.
“If I was Donald Trump I’d say it was huuuuge! It was enormous!” Bush said, referring to the extra state dollars. “It was huge: 66 percent!”
On the stump, Jeb Bush frequently recalls meeting his wife as a teenager in Mexico. On Saturday, Columba Bush told her side of the story.
He walked out of a white car the first time she saw him, she said. They went to the movies. In short order, he declared his love for her.
Her response? “I could not stop thinking of how tall he was!” she said, as the room broke into laughter. Jeb Bush is 6’4”. Columba Bush is 5’.
More seriously, she sent the kind of message that might resonate with Hispanic voters should she start appearing more often on the campaign trail.
“Jeb not only fell in love with me, but he also fell in love with my culture,” she said. “And I fell in love with his heart.”