John Ellis Bush, the witty and charming son of a retiree named George, always wanted to make it on his own. He wanted out of Texas. He wanted to escape his father’s shadow. He wanted to strike it rich.
Now, in the bright light of his first bid for elective office, Jeb Bush is better than halfway there.
He is in Florida. He is rich. His net worth is $2.26 million.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But a Bush he is, indelibly, forever. “A blessing and a curse,” he calls it.
Jeb Bush, a boyish 41, quick, competitive, loyal, unassuming, says he got to where he is because he “worked my tail off” and never profited from the family name. In his campaign office on Coral Way, Jeb pops a Motrin for a herniated disc. “Did I get picked for this or that because I’m George Bush’s son?” he asks a bit testily. “I don’t know. I don’t care.”
In 22 hours of interviews with The Herald, the Republican candidate for governor disclosed more than 100 pages of financial records and talked openly about his rise from a naive, heavily mortgaged “gopher” in his father’s 1980 presidential campaign to a wary entrepreneur with a mosaic of global connections.
Is it a tale of energy and pluck, hard work and skillful investment? Is it exploitation of the family name? Or is it both?
Jeb Bush’s story of politics, privilege and personal ambition began Feb. 11, 1953, in the dusty town of Midland, Texas. His father, a blue-blood Yankee Episcopalian, had taken the family there to launch an offshore oil-drilling company. When Jeb, one of five children, was 6 years old, the Bushes moved to a bigger house in Houston.
As a childhood jock, Jeb could hit a ball over the backyard fence (once busting a neighbor’s window). He developed a killer serve on the tennis court. Fiercely competitive, partial to the underdog, he sometimes refereed kid squabbles. Jeb attended a public elementary school, then transferred to a private school. When his father became a congressman and moved to Washington, Jeb, an eighth grader, stayed in Houston with another family. In 1968 he went off to Andover in New Hampshire, where he wrote a term paper on his father’s losing Senate bid.
Sometimes he found it hard to live up to others’ expectations. “I was a cynical little turd in a cynical little school,” he once admitted — a youth squealing his share of tires and smoking a little pot. “I admit it,” Jeb said recently. “I inhaled.”
At 17, Jeb, a slender six feet three inches, went to Leon, Mexico, on a student exchange program. At a motorcycle race one Sunday, he met a well-to-do Mexican girl, 16-year-old, five-foot one-inch Columba. She didn’t speak English too well. Jeb didn’t speak Spanish too well. In a three-year, love-letter courtship, they became bilingual.
“I’ve been faithful to my wife for 20 years,” Jeb said, without anyone asking. What’s more, he said, he never slept with another woman.
At the University of Texas at Austin, Jeb was just another young man in the crowd with a mustache and shoulder-length hair. It was a time of love-beaded GIs in Vietnam.
When Jeb got his Selective Service registration notice, he considered filing for conscientious-objector status to avoid the war, his mother Barbara once said. “Was I for the war? Um. I don’t think I was really much of either . . . I was more concerned about graduating as soon as possible. I wanted to get married, work and have a family. I had no compelling reason to go to Vietnam.”
He registered, but the draft ended before his number came up. He graduated at Texas in 2 1/2 years with a Phi Beta Kappa key.
While two brothers followed their father into the oil business, Jeb married, dabbled in his new Catholic faith and went to work at Texas Commerce Bank, partly owned by his father’s friend, the future secretary of state, James Baker.
Ben Love, the bank chairman, said he didn’t hire Jeb because of whose son he was. “An extraordinary man,” Love called him. Good academic record, warm personality, inexhaustible workaholic. Starting salary: about $8,000 a year.
In November 1977, Jeb, with Columba and two babies, was off to Caracas to open a bank branch. Thanks to his ability to speak Spanish and his political connections, the family was quickly accepted in petroleum-rich Venezuela’s society. Jeb pored over oil-company loan documents and kept an eye on borrowers in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. His father had recently completed a stint as CIA director, and Jeb got his first taste of international finance. His politics took a sharp turn to the right.
Two years later, Jeb returned to Houston campaigned for his father, then running for president against Ronald Reagan. He flew from primary to primary, touting his dad as a war hero and downplaying his liberal voting record in Congress.
When Reagan won the nomination, Jeb brimmed with anxiety as he waited to hear Reagan’s choice for running mate. “When they announced Bush, Jeb’s face lit up,” said Carlos Salman, a wealthy Miami real-estate investor and Reagan supporter.
As his father took office, Jeb, 27, toyed with a new job, too. “Banking was kind of staid,” he said. He wanted to be wealthy, but he was concerned about getting rich off his father’s name in his father’s home town.
So he packed up the family for Miami, home of Columba’s mother and sister. Struggling to pay bills, relying on a $20,000 loan from his dad, he sold some blue-chip stocks and the two-bedroom house in Houston. He sank the profits, about $34,000, into a $175,000 house in Pinewood Estates in Perrine, with four bedrooms, a pool and a chain link fence. Columba picked it out.
Jeb, knowing very few people, took a job with Armando Codina, then 32, a Cuban emigre and George Bush supporter. “If there’s one person I trust blindly,” Jeb said recently, “it’s Armando Codina.”
After parlaying an $18,000 small-business loan into a multimillion-dollar computer business, Codina had sold the company and begun IntrAmerica Investments Inc., a real estate firm. Jeb won him over, but not because his last name was Bush, Codina said. “He was full of passion, dedicated and fluent in Spanish. Any corporation, anyone, would have been lucky to have him.”
“Like a Fuller Brush man,” Jeb knocked on doors, shook the right hands, and hustled for accounts. While Codina found the property and managed the money, Jeb walked into strangers’ offices, sometimes unannounced, and asked if anyone needed a smart land deal. Codina paid him $41,508 in 1981. But Jeb began to pick up big commissions, once making $50,000 for lining up an investor.
“He was a quick study,” Codina said. “When he visited tenants or prospective clients, they didn’t mind the fact that I didn’t go. He had a lot of people skills . . . His name and who he was were a big plus.”
Jeb was never pretentious about his White House connections, but neither was he particularly discriminating about them. As time went on, he opened doors for Washington job seekers, not hesitating to pick up the telephone himself. It worked the other way, too. “The White House personnel office would call and say, ‘Do you know of qualified Hispanics?’”
Jeb’s accommodating nature, his Hispanic wife, his VIP father and his own anti-communist rhetoric made him an instant celebrity in Little Havana. In May 1982, he became the darling of an ad blitz to to sell the party to Hispanic voters.
“This is Jeb Bush speaking,” the soft-spoken voice began. “Our President Reagan and my father, Vice President Bush . . . consider Cubans citizens of this country . . .. Our Republican Party wants you to join us. Register Republican.”
By 1982, Jeb kept bumping into a rumor that he might run against Congressman Dante Fascell. Not true. He insisted that all he wanted was to make a living. “I was leveraged up my ying yang,” he said recently.
He had another priority. “Just wait and see,” he told attorney Joel Hirschhorn, a liberal Democrat whose children attended private school with Jeb’s kids. “My dad’s going to be president one day.”
Jeb and Codina branched into a mobile-telephone business. Jeb put in $8,000, becoming a 10 percent owner in Codina’s well- heeled investor group, and made $22,000 two years later. On the real estate front, Jeb pitched Codina’s plan to build a $35 million, 28-story office tower on Flagler Street in downtown Miami. Codina had signed up a key tenant: a young Colombian with a Rolls Royce and a Beatles haircut. His name was Alberto Duque. Duque had popped up in Miami in 1977, and almost overnight snared $124 million in loans and bought a coffee company and a controlling interest in City National Bank. “He was kind of quiet and shy, kind of insecure,” Jeb said.
With a bunch of Miami bigwigs, Jeb attended a lavish dinner hosted by Duque. In deference to the guests of honor, Arab bankers, no women were invited. Five days later, Jeb flew in Duque’s private jet to San Jose for the inauguration of a Costa Rican president.
“It didn’t take Duque long to blow up,” Jeb said. “He exploded like a shooting star.”
Duque’s empire, it turned out, was a house of cards built on bills of lading for nonexistent coffee. Later convicted of fraud, Duque got 15 years. He served seven, skipped out of a halfway house and now is believed to be holed up in Colombia.
“It just goes to show that the hallmark of a great confidence man is effortless deception,” Jeb said.
Codina took the blame. “The Duque deal was a deal I put together,” he said recently. “Jeb got drawn into it. It was my mistake, not his.”
Codina rebounded quickly. In May 1983, Ronald Reagan singled him out for his bootstrap success during a speech in Miami.
People courted Jeb, too. A Norwegian-owned company that sold fire equipment to the Alaska pipeline put him on its board, paying him $12,000 one year.
Like his daddy, Jeb decided to become boss of his county’s GOP. Tooling around Dade in a silver Thunderbird, he called on hundreds of people. Seen as a fixer for red-tape problems, a White House liaison, a healer and bridge between Anglo and Cuban Republicans, Jeb won the job — and a seat “right in the middle of the Casablanca of the Western Hemisphere.”
Lots of people asked him for favors, everything from the “legitimate to the bizarre.”
“I’d get four phone calls coming in at once,” he said. “It’s like it is in Cuba . . . They (the callers) don’t want a fair hearing. They just say, ‘Go and do it.’”
Trying to “filter through all the crap,” Jeb maneuvered behind the scenes to help children in need of kidney transplants, old men with benefit hangups and undocumented immigrants from Nicaragua searching for a better life.
In one little-known intervention, he heard about the plight of Ethiopian Jews from a Miami buddy, attorney Ron Krongold. The Jews, known as the Falashas, had been living in straw-hut refugee camps in Sudan. Jeb talked to his father. In a dramatic, top-secret mission, the U.S. government promptly dispatched planes under the code name “Moses.” The Falashas were airlifted to Israel.
Jeb said he always tried to make sure his suggestions were “discreet” and unoffensive. But by the end of Reagan’s first term, Jeb’s largess was beginning to irk White House administrators. After a request on behalf of small airlines complaining about FAA noise regulations, a presidential aide wrote a memo: “Jim Baker explained several times that the White House could not be involved in any exemption decision.”
After the Reagan-Bush re-election landslide, Jeb’s private liaison role took a hit. “He became a victim of unscrupulous people who tried to use him because of who his father was,” said Roberto Arguello, Jeb’s banker friend.
One was Hiram Martinez Jr., a chubby, balding developer applying for aid from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, then swirling in corruption.
Martinez wanted HUD to insure a $17.8 million mortgage for his 384-unit Casa del Lago apartment project in Kendall. That was more than the land was worth. At the request of a reputable lawyer, Jeb put in a good word with a good friend of his dad, a HUD undersecretary.
Martinez used the loan for a Mercedes-Benz for his lawyer, a housekeeper for his family and flowers for his friends. He defaulted on Casa del Lago. Residents complained bitterly about shaking walls and construction defects. Taxpayers picked up the bill.
Martinez got six years in prison. Jeb said he doesn’t remember writing a letter for him.
Inadvertently, Jeb also played a bit part as an intermediary in one of the biggest scandals of the 1980s: the Iran-contra affair. As a favor to a friend, he passed on a letter to his father from a Guatemalan doctor. It said that anti-communist troops in the field needed medical assistance. The vice president referred the doctor to Lt. Col. Ollie North, then running a secret war. Jeb said he had never opened the letter and never knew anything about any covert operations.
Stumbling upon Jeb’s name during assorted investigations, federal prosecutors called some of his relationships tacky but legal. That’s what happened with health-care czar Miguel Recarey.
Recarey ran an HMO called International Medical Centers and drove around town with armed bodyguards. Police had long suspected his ties to organized crime. Recarey contributed to politicians and hired ex-lawmen, ex-regulators and well-connected lobbyists.
Recarey’s HMO was a mess, and at least one low-level bureaucrat wanted to cut off his Medicare funding. Jeb said he didn’t know this when Recarey asked for a favor. “He said it would be difficult to comply with the timing of a regulation. He wasn’t ranting and raving. His request sounded reasonable.”
Jeb called Kevin Moley, a former George Bush advance man working at the Medicare agency. Jeb asked that Recarey get a “fair hearing.”
Jeb insisted that the HMO received no special treatment on his account, but according to congressional testimony, his call — and calls from Recarey lobbyists — made a difference. HHS not only kept the money flowing but turned up the nozzle.
About the same time, Recarey retained Jeb to look for a new headquarters building for the HMO. They met for breakfast at Recarey’s home in Coral Gables. Jeb said he worked hard to broker a deal, but closed none. Recarey paid Jeb’s real estate firm anyway, $75,809 over three years.
“At the time, I didn’t feel I was doing business with a crook,” Jeb said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought.”
The feds busted Recarey for bribery of a union boss. On the eve of a second indictment, he fled the country with a $2.2 million federal income tax refund, expedited by the IRS. Captured last fall, Recarey is awaiting extradition in a Madrid jail cell.
After getting “burned a couple of times,” Jeb said he got more cautious, maybe even a bit standoffish. “I got better at deciphering people’s motives.”
By 1986, he considered running for Congress. But his father talked him out of it. “He asked me all kinds of questions. Could I win? Was I financially secure enough?”
The answer was no. In fact, his financial dealings had grown so complex that not even Jeb fully understood them. He and Codina had changed the name of their realty company to Bush Realty.
Jeb invested in several Codina-controlled limited partnerships. They permitted him to write off tax losses even though his investments were small.
Jeb’s salary reached $131,145 in 1986, plus $53,971 from an annuity. But thanks to shrewd accountants and perfectly legal deductions on his real estate investments, Jeb paid no federal income tax in 1986 — for a second straight year.
On some deals, he lost money. On one, he hit big. He put up $1,000 in 1984 for an interest in the planned building now known as Museum Tower, 150 W. Flagler St. In two transactions, he eventually sold his interest for $340,000.
But, by then, he was paying Uncle Sam through the nose. By 1992, for example, he coughed up $355,790 on income of $1,045,907.
His political fortunes flourished, too. As Dade Republican chairman, his name attracted big names and big dollars. The party doubled in size, its Dade legislative delegation jumped from four to 10, and Dade catapulted Bob Martinez into the governor’s mansion. To the victors went the spoils. Martinez named Jeb Florida’s commerce secretary.
In Tallahassee, Jeb learned to make a good speech. Unlike his father, he also learned to ungarble his syntax. He logged hundreds of thousands of miles trumpeting the glories of Florida to the world’s business leaders.
Occasionally, state records show, he accepted free lodging from U.S. ambassadors, free plane rides from political friends, and small gifts from corporate executives. But he was super-cautious on his expense reports, never charging for anything personal.
He even paid his own postage. It wasn’t pennies. Like his mom and dad, he mailed out literally thousands of thank you notes.
He should have received one himself from Dexter Lehtinen in 1988. By then, Jeb had stopped calling the White House so much, but that didn’t stop the White House from calling him when the U.S. attorney’s job opened up. Skipping over more experienced prosecutors, Jeb recommended Lehtinen, a GOP lawmaker with a golden resume — and a hair-trigger temper.
Later, as Lehtinen publicly fended off a barrage of allegations about misconduct and domestic violence, Jeb stuck by his old friend.
And when his father, the man who loyally stuck by Reagan, began his own bid for president, Jeb said his father was no wimp. He quit his commerce job to make speeches for him.
Even before the swearing-in, Jeb’s White House role expanded. On Christmas Eve 1988, at the president-elect’s request, Jeb accompanied a cargo flight with 100,000 pounds of supplies bound for earthquake victims in snowy Armenia. He took along his son George, then 12, for their first and only look at a communist country.
“We went to a children’s hospital, and the kids had crush wounds. There was an Armenian boy — thin, dark, with beautiful black eyes — who could have been my son. George gave him a toy; he gave my son a Bible . . . . His old man was crying.”
Jeb’s kids, he always professed, were the most important things in his life. And when his father referred to them as “Jebby’s kids from Florida, the little brown ones,” Jeb angrily blamed the press for creating a phony issue.
That one comment, their mother said recently, did more to promote Mexican culture in the United States than any other. “We’re brown and we’re proud to be brown,” Columba said. “Nobody should be offended by being called brown.”
After his father moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Jeb blazed a trail of deals, investing in a dozen new companies and traveling to 15 countries. He sold Florida real estate to Asians and Spaniards. He bought a Miami shoe company and sold footwear in bulk in Panama. And he sold pumps for M&W Pump, owned by GOP committeeman David Eller.
Back at home, his business with Codina took off like gangbusters — during a national recession. They forged alliances with old, big-name investors such as Calvin Babcock, whose home-building family dated back to the 1920s, and Laurence Tisch, the CBS mogul.
They renamed their company the Codina Bush Group and locked up a $70 million loan to build Deering Bay, a 286-unit luxury community. Condos sold for a million. The country club membership cost $50,000.
Because he was the president’s son, Jeb said, he lost out on deals he and Codina could have won “entirely on the merits.” An example: bidding on the CenTrust tower after the feds took it over. He denied company name changes exploited the Bush moniker. By 1990, the Bush brokerage handled more than $60 million in transactions. Jeb shared in 40 percent of the profits from Codina’s enterprises as they established themselves as one of South Florida’s premier development firms. “They usually could get a phone call back in about five seconds,” said Brett Houston, a onetime broker for Codina-Bush. “Jeb’s name could not make a guy pay more. But it could open doors.”
It seemed as if Jeb knew everyone in Miami worth knowing. The corporate elite named him chairman of the Beacon Council, their pet project fed by public money and private donations. Jeb persuaded the council to pay more attention to small firms and Hispanic businesses. Still, he is remembered mostly for one thing: Getting his dad to speak at the council’s annual meeting.
Bankers were happy to lend him money: $400,000 for a house from SunBank, where he was on the board or directors; $450,000 from First Union for a 1 percent stake in a pro football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars. “They don’t go throwing away money to people because they have a famous father,” Jeb said. “I always paid off my loans.”
One of his friends did not. A group led by J. Edward Houston, former chairman of Barnett Bank of South Florida, borrowed $4.5 million from Broward Federal Savings & Loan to help finance a $9 million Bush-Codina office building at 1390 Brickell Ave.. Houston defaulted and the S&L went belly-up.
Jeb and Codina had a separate $7 million mortgage on the same building and denied any responsibility for the money Houston owed. Even so, they repaid $505,000 to the feds. Government regulators, calling the transaction complex and strange, eventually decided to forgive the rest of the Houston loan, $4 million. Jeb and Codina got to keep the building — and paid a chunk of taxes to the IRS. Eventually, they sold the building for $8.7 million, but Jeb insisted that with closing costs and legal fees, he made almost nothing.
“We didn’t welch on our obligations,” he said. “I do not believe our negotiators used my name to get a favorable settlement.”
The Houston loan wasn’t Jeb’s only headache. Dade’s GOP, which he had worked so hard to build, cracked a bit. Gov. Martinez lost re-election, and two months later, the Bushes lost their maid.
Two immigration agents knocked on their door about 5 a.m. one day.
“Do you know whose home this is?” asked the Secret Service agent who answered the door. Jeb was out jogging. Columba came to the door. The INS agents showed her a deportation order for their Honduran maid, Maria Romero. Although she had a work permit and Jeb had done everything right, even paying her federal income and Social Security taxes — long before the Zoe Baird nanny problem — it made no difference. She hadn’t proved her political asylum claim, and the INS gave her a one-way ticket home. Jeb still sends her notes.
As the 1992 election approached, newspaper reporters wrote nasty things about Jeb trading on the family name. He had always gone to “extraordinary lengths” to make sure he never did anything to embarrass his father. Now he felt like he was “buck naked” in the middle of a stadium and everybody was looking at him.
When Jeb’s banker friend, Roberto Arguello, visited the White House to find out about an appointment to an advisory board, he got some advice: Forget Jeb. He can’t help you.
On election night, the Bushes gathered in a small suite in The Houstonian. It was over quick, and Barbara Bush tried to cheer them. “Where do you go to get a driver’s license?” she joked.
“It was a nice reminder of the real world,” Jeb said. The night was one of the most depressing in his life.
Christmas burglars hit the house while the family vacationed at Camp David. They ransacked the master bedroom and took a diamond necklace and a gold watch. Jeb said they weren’t insured.
A few months later, Jeb decided that he would seize the family political banner. When he told Codina he would run for governor, Codina told him he was crazy. He was giving up millions. “I spent hours trying to talk him out of it.”
In June 1993, Jeb severed ties to Codina, receiving a seven-figure financial settlement. He hired advisers from his father’s campaign. Old White House hands went on the stump for him.
George himself popped up at a $250-a-person breakfast (and to play a little golf at Deering Bay with Arnold Palmer and Joe DiMaggio).
Wealthy people from Team 100, an elite group of GOP businessman, pumped instant money into the campaign. About a quarter of Jeb’s contributions come from out of state, from people who can’t even vote for him.
“There is an irony here,” Jeb noted. “If I take contributions from businessmen in Florida, the complaint is that they have an interest, and if I take money from businessmen outside Florida, the complaint is that they do not have an interest.”
These days, Jeb’s favorite time is Sunday, the quiet time he spends at home with his family. The house is full of photographs of the White House days, the inauguration, the fishing trips.
Jeb plops before the TV with Columba and the three kids, George Prescott, 18, Noelle, 17, and Jebbie Jr., 11. They watch Jeb’s favorite show, American Gladiators, in which male and female contestants square off against gladiators with names like Titan and Lace. Competitors climb walls, stuff balls into containers and fight with padded sticks.
“It reminds me of what I do for a living,” Jeb said. “It’s got a real unreal feel to it, like politics.”