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It's hard to peg Jeb Bush

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


Jeb Bush has an identity crisis.

Half-way through his first term, the Republican governor sometimes appears as a stubborn, hard-edged conservative, circa 1994, who favors the big business and the wealthy, ignores political warning signs and brushes aside minorities. Other days he offers a softer side that embodies the overused compassionate conservative label, blending a love of public policy with concern for the poor or the elderly or inner city residents.

There is plenty of evidence to support either description.

Is he the determined tax-slasher who wants another $313-million in tax breaks in a tight budget year, or the forward-looking moderate who steered more money to foster care and health insurance for the poor?

Is he the former developer who would dismantle growth management as we know it, or the environmentalist who pushed for a new land-buying program and restoration of the Everglades?

Is he the enemy of public education with his school grading system and vouchers for private school tuition, or the reformer who earmarks more money for struggling schools and insists on higher standards and accountability?

Then throw his brother into the mix.

Any assessment of the Florida governor eventually includes President Bush. Neither of the Bush brothers likes to analyze himself. They like comparisons even less -- except when they believe it will produce votes.

Jeb Bush spent much of his adult life trying to step out of his father's shadow. Now he finds himself in his older brother's shadow, and there is no escape. There will be comparisons of style, policy and politics. And what happens to George W. Bush over the next two years in Washington will affect how Jeb Bush is viewed in Florida and the amount of turbulence he encounters in his expected re-election campaign next year.

It wasn't always this tough to paint a clear picture of the Florida governor who zips through his daily e-mail and weekend golf games like a man possessed.

When Bush first ran for governor in 1994, he was a tough-talking conservative who promoted speeding up executions and stopping abortion while ignoring the environment and black voters. He lost to incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Four years later, Bush softened his approach.

"He came into the 1998 election with a lot of the hard edges sanded off that he had been criticized for in 1994, and he did not provide his opponents much to shoot at," recalled former Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade.

Bush refocused on public education and pledged to extend the ambitious program that buys and preserves environmentally sensitive lands. He downplayed abortion and played up his efforts to win over black Democrats. He easily defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay.

The Bush 2001 version combines the two previous ones.

Name a hot-button issue for conservatives, and the Florida governor has mashed on it with both hands.

Tax cuts?

Bush can point to more than $1.6-billion in cuts over two years. He's determined to continue slashing the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds even as he faces his first tight budget that may lead to spending cuts in higher education and social services.

State government?

He is taking another shot at reducing the budgets of state agencies across the board and overhauling the career service system, angering the unions.

The courts?

Bush signed into law efforts to streamline death penalty appeals and limit awards in some types of lawsuits. The former were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court; the latter were rejected by a Tallahassee circuit judge. The governor has not been rushing to defend judicial independence as angry Republican lawmakers have vowed to rein in the courts.

At the same time, Bush has demonstrated an interest and a personal commitment in areas other Republicans traditionally ignored.

Jim Kane, editor of the non-partisan Florida Voter poll, recalled watching a recent Bush speech in Fort Lauderdale. He said the governor began with standard conservative rhetoric about the budget, then veered into talking about the needs of families with children suffering from health and substance abuse problems.

"I walked away and thought I was listening to Teddy Kennedy," Kane said. "He sends conflicting messages out there. . . . "We're going to slash the budget, and we're going to get rid of all of these pork barrel projects, but I do want to spend more money on little folks.'

"No doubt he is a pro-business governor," he added. "But there is a liberal side to him, and sometimes that comes out."

It comes out in some of his budget priorities. It is reflected in his continued support for his Front Porch initiative, an effort to rebuild inner city neighborhoods that has suffered growing pains in St. Petersburg and at the state level. It shows up in his personal commitment to mentor a student in Tallahassee.

But more than ever, that vision of Bush is obscured by the conservative Bush. Like Newt Gingrich-era Republicans in Washington, he ignores warning signs and pushes sweeping agendas with little regard to dissenting opinions.

Bush's One Florida program, which replaced affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions, has produced gains in minority contracts and students -- although their size is debatable.

The political price for ending affirmative action has been steep.

Black voters overwhelmingly oppose One Florida, a St. Petersburg Times poll in February showed. Bush's job approval rating among black voters is just 8 percent while it remains over 60 percent among all voters.

In hindsight, Slade acknowledged, One Florida "was not properly vetted before it was birthed."

Understandably, Bush and his staff are frustrated. They complain that his efforts to appoint more minority judges and staffers, and to increase spending in health care and other areas for minorities, aren't getting enough credit. But instead of aggressively reaching out to black Floridians, the Bush administration blames the media and complains that there is too much focus on voters' perceptions instead of the administration's view of reality.

The conservative Bush probably will fare better than the compassionate Bush in the Legislature, which has moved even further to the right.

House Speaker Tom Feeney, the governor's running mate in 1994, is more aggressive in pushing conservative social issues than Bush. He also may not protect the governor's back the way former House Speaker John Thrasher did the past two years. Bush and Thrasher were extremely close friends, and Thrasher would not move a muscle without checking with the governor first.

Feeney won't intentionally embarrass Bush. But he may not be as diligent in keeping the most conservative legislators from pursuing proposals, such as those that would rein in the state Supreme Court, that would put the governor in an awkward spot.

Meanwhile, Bush plunges ahead in other areas with a similar lack of finesse.

He is in a hurry to blow up the career service system at a time when state employees will see meager salary increases.

He is dismantling the higher education system, abolishing the Board of Regents that oversees state universities and trying to add boards of trustees at every school.

He wants to deregulate the electric industry as the nation is focused on the California blackouts triggered by a botched effort there. And he wants to get the state out of the growth management business and hand much of the responsibility back to local governments, whose poor planning led to the state's growth management laws in the first place.

Bush isn't completely tone deaf.

After unveiling the overhaul of the career service system, he dashed off a letter to state workers to try to reassure them he values their contributions. Parts of the proposed growth management overhaul have been softened or delayed until after his first term would end.

Bush also recently broke into tears as he met with a black Baptist education group. He contended black appointees have been ostracized by other black Floridians because of their relationship with him.

But by any measure, Bush's appetite for change is larger than one would expect of a governor who already has endured one public relations nightmare with affirmative action and is eyeing re-election.

"He certainly has put himself in the position where one could either say he has over-reached -- which I don't think will be the case -- or he has been the boldest governor Florida has ever had and addressed the problems of this state in a politically unselfish manner," Slade said.

Bush said in an interview he has no intention of scaling back.

"That's why I got elected in the first place," he said of his overflowing plate of projects. "The point is I honestly believe there is a window of opportunity to make changes in our state, and this is not the time to be timid."

For a better Florida: An annual preview of the legislative session

Little spared in Bush's proposed budget cuts (February 25, 2001)

Growing out of control (February 25, 2001)

The university system teetering on the edge (February 18, 2001)

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