June 2, 2015


Not the Bush You Think He Is : Jeb Bush is more ruthless than he looks, more conservative than moderates like to believe, and possibly more appealing to Latinos than Marco Rubio. (Jennifer Senior, 6/01/15, New York)

"It doesn't matter where we came from, or why we came."

A narrator is speaking in Spanish. Different Latin American flags are waving in the breeze as he speaks. The Dominican Republic. Mexico. Colombia.

"In this land," the voice continues, "we find opportunity, a better education for our children, the medical care our families deserve, a state that has opened its heart and has told us this is our house."

Venezuela. Nicaragua. And then, finally, the state flag of Florida.

"We all want a better life." This is Jeb Bush now, appearing onscreen. "Together, we are making it happen in this land, our home: Florida."

He is speaking in Spanish. It is nearly flawless.

Jeb Bush made this campaign commercial in 2002. Thirteen years later, Sergio Bendixen, one of the best-known Democratic consultants to Latino candidates in the business, still shows it to focus groups. Doesn't matter that it was made by a guy on the other side. He says it unfailingly makes at least one person well up.

"What he figured out," says Bendixen, "is how proud members of each group are of their nationality and their culture. He knows that's a magic formula."

I had originally assumed, somewhat cynically, that Jeb Bush was not an honorary Hispanic but an honorary Cuban, representing solely the interests of Florida's wealthiest group of Latin Americans. Not so, according to Bendixen and many others I spoke to: In Jeb's days as governor, Latinos of all stripes liked him. When I ask Bendixen why, given that Hispanics have shown a demonstrable preference in surveys for expanding the role of government, he gives a simple answer: Jeb protected their dignity when others would not. "When Pete Wilson was the big leader of this huge anti-immigrant movement" -- Prop 187 in California -- "Jeb Bush and Giuliani were the only two Republicans who had the guts to say there was nothing to be gained." Isaac Lee, the CEO of Fusion and president of news for Univision, says something similar: "When you say that a vast group of people -- people who include your sister or your father or a close friend -- should be electrified on a fence, nothing else is worth listening to because you're being insulted." So when Jeb starts talking about compassion toward immigrants, says Lee, "immediately, how he feels about big government is less important."

Needless to say, this rhetoric does not endear him to the Republican base, the tea party in particular. Last year, at his father's own library, Jeb went so far as to say that those who came to the United States in search of a better life for their children "broke the law, but it's not a felony; it's an act of love." Yet Jeb has actually met with members of Congress (like Matt Salmon of Arizona) who are closely affiliated with the tea party in order to change their minds on this subject, says Clint Bolick, who co-authored a book on immigration with the governor. Luis Gutiérrez, the Democratic congressman who's been trying in vain to pass comprehensive immigration reform on the Hill, recently declared that Jeb was the best Republican option Democrats had.

These efforts may seem quixotic. But how could one be married to a Mexican woman and live (and do business) in Miami and not be concerned about issues of immigration?

Jeb met his wife, Columba (known to everyone as "Colu"), as an exchange student in Mexico when he was just 17 years old. He married her less than four years later, at the University of Texas, where he majored in Latin American studies. His mother was not pleased, nor was his father always tactful about Jeb's choice. "Remember," says Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat who briefly served in Congress, "he takes this personally. His own father referred to his grandchildren as 'the little brown ones.' " A true story, from 1988.

Writing in The Atlantic, the author and former presidential speechwriter David Frum had perhaps the most insightful reading of Jeb's marriage to Columba. He compared the former Florida governor to Barack Obama, of all people, noting that both men have "openly and publicly struggled with their ambivalence about their family inheritance." He continued:

Both responded by leaving the place of their youth to create new identities for themselves: Barack Obama, as an organizer in the poor African-American neighborhoods of Chicago; Jeb Bush, in Mexico, Venezuela, and, at the last, in Cuban-influenced Miami. Both are men who have talked a great deal about the feeling of being "between two worlds": Obama, in his famous autobiography; Bush, in his speeches. Both chose wives who would more deeply connect them to their new, chosen identity. Both derived from their new identity a sharp critique of their nation as it is.
As strange as it is to say, Jeb may be the true black sheep of the family, not W.

It's not an accident that Jeb and Columba landed in Miami. The city, particularly the community of Coral Gables, is rivaled by few places in the United States for its Latin biculturalism. Columba is family-focused, highly private, and less comfortable speaking English than Jeb is speaking Spanish; scour the web and you'll find almost no video footage of her, just enough to see that she has a gentle voice and stands a mere five feet tall. Jeb's first run for governor in 1994 was reportedly very hard on her and their marriage, likely contributing to his conversion to Catholicism. When he won and moved his family to Tallahassee, she was miserable. It's very hard to say what kind of First Lady she would be, given how limelight-avoidant she's been. "She would take on domestic violence and anti-drug programs," predicts Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a longtime Miami congresswoman and supporter of Jeb's. "But I don't think she'll dance with late-night-TV hosts."

At home with Columba, Jeb speaks mainly in Spanish, which he refined during his three-year stint in Venezuela, where he opened a branch of the Texas Commerce Bank. Like many bilingual people, he thinks in his second language, not just speaks it, and it's startling sometimes to hear him abruptly go to Spanish, mid-­sentence, continuing with the same verve. "When he switches from English to Spanish," says Ros-Lehtinen, "he comes across as a warmer person. He'll turn into a regular guy and not be so focused on being on-message."

I'd had this very thought. Just over a month ago, while visiting Puerto Rico, the governor had been asked, in English, whether he'd ever attended a gay wedding or would consider doing so. He answered that no, he hadn't, but "that's not to say I wouldn't." He then followed up in Spanish with a much more forceful affirmation: Claro que sí. Of course he would attend a gay wedding.

Jeb's biculturalism was likely key to his accumulation of power in the state. One of the now-obscure parts of his résumé is that he reinvented the Florida GOP, using the power of his name and connections to conscript many of the Cuban powerhouse politicians who now make up its spine. When Jeb first arrived in Miami in 1980, most of the Cuban politicos were Democrats, and they were getting nowhere in the primaries. Jeb soon took over the Miami-Dade Republican Party ("What a thankless job that was," says Ros-Lehtinen) and turned it into a recruiting tool for Cubans, convincing them one by one that the GOP better represented their values.

Today, Cubans are not quite as influential in Florida politics. They are no longer the majority of the state's Hispanic electorate. The new generation of Florida Latinos tends to lean more left than right, and even Cubans in the state have lately been tempted by Democrats, with 48 percent of them voting for Obama in the last election. Recent public-opinion surveys have made it clear that Hispanics overwhelmingly favor increasing taxes on the wealthy and increasing the minimum wage. Jeb does not stand for these ideas; Hillary does. She, too, is popular with Latinos.

But if presidential elections are won or lost in Florida, and if Florida's electoral votes are won or lost based on the Hispanic vote, then Jeb, with his longtime celebration of those many, many flags, may be the only Republican candidate with a fighting chance to beat her. "Even Marco Rubio would be more limited to the Cuban base," says Bendixen. Rubio, for better or for worse, is still affiliated with the anti-immigrant tea party. Plenty of non-Cuban Latinos remember his comment from 2009 -- "Nothing against immigrants, but my parents were exiles" -- and hold it against him, because it implied that those who came here seeking economic opportunity deserved less. (It has since come out that Rubio's parents came here for economic opportunity themselves, rather than fleeing from Castro.) Ironically, it also turns out to be important that Jeb is not Latino. "Rubio is from the community," explains Anthony Suarez, the president of the Puerto Rican bar association and a former state legislator. "But Jeb is not. He can say, 'Immigrants are just other Americans.' " A gringo agitating on behalf of immigration rights -- what could be more powerful than that?

Posted by at June 2, 2015 6:01 PM

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