Jeb Bush casts himself as an evangelist for a Republican Party that welcomes new faces of all ages and colors. In campaign stop after campaign stop, he spreads his arms wide: “We have to campaign like this,” he says — not with an angry posture he sometimes mimics by frowning, wagging his index finger and grunting, “Grrr.”
That’s not much of a hard sell for Bush to make to Hispanics. The former Florida governor is an adopted Miamian who speaks Spanish with his Mexican-born wife.
But making the same case to African Americans, another overwhelmingly Democratic bloc, is a different story. But Bush will try anyway when he speaks Friday in Fort Lauderdale to the annual conference of the National Urban League, a civil-rights group.
Bush got a preview of the kind of skeptical crowd he might face at a meet-and-greet with pastors in Orlando on Monday. A black minister, David Outing, grabbed the microphone and asked Bush what he would do as president to represent, and not just pander to, the black community.
“I would do what I did as governor,” Bush responded. “My administration was as inclusive as possible.”
He pointed to increasing state contracts with minority-owned businesses, giving more children the option to attend a private or charter school and appointing more African-American judges: “You show your commitment day in and day out.”
Yet some of Bush’s actions disproportionately hurt African Americans. He ended affirmative action in state universities, oversaw a flawed purge of Florida’s voter rolls and signed off on mandatory prison sentences and a self-defense law for people “standing their ground.”
“He was no panacea,” said former state Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat who pushed for more black judges and conceded Bush was better at that than the sitting governor, Republican Rick Scott.
Bush’s career as a political candidate began with a bungled response when asked, during his first gubernatorial race in 1994, what he’d do to help African Americans.
His answer: “Probably nothing.”
With the benefit of two decades of experience, Bush has worked to make inroads with African-American voters, especially in South Florida.
After losing the 1994 race, Bush donated leftover campaign money to the Urban League of Greater Miami. That led to the creation in 1996 of the first charter school in the state — and to an enduring friendship with T. Willard Fair, the local Urban League president and co-founder of the Liberty City Charter School.
“I wanted to get pictures of Jeb Bush giving me a check,” Fair recalled last month. “Instead we talked for an hour and a half. He said, ‘Why don’t we start our own school?’”
Fair got “a lot of flak” from black organizations appalled at the partnership. He didn’t care. “I’ll run through walls for him,” he said of Bush. “He is the most compassionate, most sincere human being I’ve ever been around.”
Two of the school reforms Bush championed — creating charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and voucher programs that subsidized private and religious schooling for poor children — endeared the Republican governor to some black Democrats who couldn’t oppose help for needy children to go to better schools.
But he drew strident opposition when he ended affirmative action in state universities in 1999. Two black Democratic lawmakers staged a 20-hour sit-in at the Capitol to protest Bush’s “One Florida” initiative, which outlawed racial and gender preferences in admissions. The sit-in was followed by one of the largest protests in Florida history.
Bush bragged that his alternative — guaranteeing state-university admission to the top 20 percent of high school graduates, along with some need-based financial aid — led to higher African-American and Hispanic enrollment. Today, more black and Hispanic students attend state schools, but the percentage of black students is down compared to what it was before his order.
Then came the voter purges.
In 1999, the state got rid of hundreds of names on the rolls, some of them eligible voters removed in error. The effort began before Bush took office and received national attention after his brother, George W. Bush, won the 2000 presidential election by 537 Florida votes.
Jeb Bush blamed elections officials for the flawed purge, but a U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2001 also chided the governor for the “unjust removal of disproportionate numbers of African-American voters.” Bush then followed the commission’s recommendation to make it easier for former felons to restore their voting rights.
In 2004, the state put together a new purge list of thousands of possible felons — many of them black Democrats — whose voting rights had been restored. The effort was ultimately scrapped.
The next year, Bush signed a law limiting early-voting hours, including the Sunday before Election Day used by black churches to bring “souls to the polls.”
Though Democrat Hillary Clinton already has needled Bush over the purges, their Urban League audience Friday might care most about Bush’s criminal-justice record, given the string of recent African-American deaths in the news.
The campaign arm of the liberal Center for American Progress released a report Tuesday saying Bush left a “deadly legacy” in the black community by signing “stand your ground” in 2005. Florida’s law, copied by 23 other states, has been used more broadly than legislators ever imagined, with defendants who use it as a defense more likely to prevail if their victim was black. After George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford in 2012, Bush defended the law — but not Zimmerman, who ended up not using it as a defense.
“Stand your ground means stand your ground,” Bush said. “It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”
His campaign said Tuesday that Bush “brought violent crime in Florida down to a 35-year low.”
“He passed tough sentencing laws for gun crimes and ensured dangerous people were kept off our street,” spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said in a statement.
True, said state Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. Yet the flip side of harsher sentencing — known as “10-20-Life,” for the number of years mandated for felons who commit certain crimes — was that black men ended up in jail for longer, decimating the family unit Bush has called crucial to society.
“‘I fought to make the streets in the black community safer.’ That is an accurate statement,” said Smith, an attorney who bucked his party to endorse Bush in 1998 but broke with him over One Florida. “But then you look at what’s behind that: 10-20-Life. Three strikes, you’re out. Taking away judicial discretion. Stand your ground, which has made it the Wild, Wild West in our communities.”
Bush should stand firm on his record — including the fact that he quietly took down the Confederate battle flag from the Florida Capitol — said Levi Williams, a black Republican attorney and Bush supporter in deep-blue Broward County.
But Bush should have made a bigger deal of the removal of what for many is a symbol of slavery, he said.
“He did it without any fanfare, any ceremony,” Williams said. “I was really upset with him about that — that was a big thing for a lot of minorities. … Of course, it would have hurt with the Republicans, because that was ahead of his time.”
Bush has pledged to campaign in “places where Republicans haven’t been seen in a long while.” He will be the only GOP contender to address the Urban League, other than retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is an African American. Three Democratic candidates — Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders — also will be there.
“It’s OK to get outside your comfort zone a little bit,” Bush said Monday in Orlando. “It’s OK if not everybody agrees with my views.”
What’s not OK, he added, is “not to try.”