The Other Governor Bush Makes Impressive Start

By: - May 25, 1999 12:00 am

WASHINGTON – Name a governor of a large southern state who has raised mountains of campaign cash, reached out to Democrats and pushed all of his top priorities through the state legislature without breaking a sweat.

If you said George W. Bush, you’re wrong.

While the Texas governor has captured the national spotlight as he prepares for a campaign for president and battles with state lawmakers, his little brother Jeb is off to a more impressive start in Florida.

The other Gov. Bush’s first legislative session is considered to be the best any new governor has had in the Sunshine State in nearly 30 years. By the time the Legislature reached the end of its annual 60-day session April 30, the 46-year-old chief executive’s checklist was perfect.

Bush wanted to reduce taxes. Lawmakers responded with a record -billion cut.

He wanted to overhaul education. He won approval of his far-reaching plan to assign every public school a letter grade and award tuition vouchers to students at failing schools.

He wanted tougher prison sentences for gun-carrying criminals. Lawmakers rubber-stamped his “”10-20-Life” program that is modeled after a California law.

And he wanted to extend for another decade the nation’s most ambitious environmental land-buying program, which was set to expire next year. Legislators who could not agree on how to do it in 1998 suddenly found the answer in 1999.

All of those wins fulfilled campaign pledges Bush made in 1998 as he cruised to victory over Democrat Buddy MacKay.

“That’s what politics ought to be about, is be clear about what you want to do and then go out and fight to make it happen,” Bush said. “You don’t get everything you want, but you can get pretty close if you are focused.”

Bush has been focused on being governor for most of the past five years.

In 1994, the former Miami real estate developer lost to incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles in Florida’s closest governor’s race this century while George W. Bush won in Texas. Had the brothers’ fortunes been reversed, many Republicans believe Jeb would be eyeing the presidency now instead of his older brother.

Between elections, Bush established a nonprofit foundation to study public policy. The foundation also opened an inner city charter school, a private institution that receives public dollars, with the Urban League of Greater Miami.

In 1998, Bush moderated his campaign rhetoric.

Gone were the 1994 speeches about the death penalty, abortion restrictions and abolishing the state Department of Education. Instead, Bush spoke of his visits to dozens of schools, revitalizing inner cities and celebrating Florida’s ethnic diversity.

Bush did not slow down after he was inaugurated in Tallahassee as his older brother and their parents, former President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, looked on.

In his first 100 days, Bush canceled plans for a high-speed bullet train, bought land for The Everglades restoration project and filed a lawsuit aimed at preventing Indian tribes from opening casinos.

When he isn’t establishing policy, the energetic governor climbs the steps of the 22-story Capitol for exercise, answers computer messages at all hours and tutors a Tallahassee middle school student.

Bush’s timing has been good. The booming economy left Florida with several billion dollars in additional tax revenue, enabling him to cut taxes while increasing spending on education and social services. Republicans also firmly control the Legislature and were eager to make their new governor look good.

But Bush capitalized on the favorable circumstances by following the same strategy he used in his campaign. He focused on his top priorities, took hard positions on few of the hundreds of other issues and avoided becoming embroiled in conservative social issues such as school prayer and abortion restrictions.

“The Bush administration is resisting the pernicious temptation to be busybodies in everything,” said Mac Stipanovich, a lobbyist who was former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez’s chief of staff in the late ’80s.

In the legislative session’s final week, Bush adroitly maneuvered behind the scenes to head off trouble. To avoid a public relations disaster, he advised legislative leaders not to take up a gun bill following the Colorado school shootings.

To satisfy his business supporters, he helped cut a deal to limit some damage awards in civil lawsuits.

And to placate social conservatives who were feeling ignored, he signaled he would sign a bill that would require minors to notify their parents before receiving an abortion.

While the Texas governor struggles to revive a less-ambitious voucher program and salvage his tax-cut package before heading out on the campaign trail, the Florida governor is quietly counting his victories and preparing to shoot down legislative turkeys — the pet projects state lawmakers stuff into the state budget.

“Obviously he’s conservative and he’s going to have a conservative agenda,” Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, said of the Republican in the governor’s office down the hall. “”But his agenda is a realistic one.” 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.