Jeb Bush is back

Actually, he never left: an ex-governor with an agenda and the network to support it.

click to enlarge GUVSPEAK: Bush testifying before the Energy & Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives during his tenure as Florida governor. - US House of Representatives
US House of Representatives
GUVSPEAK: Bush testifying before the Energy & Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives during his tenure as Florida governor.

When last we saw Jeb Bush, he was handing the keys to the breakdown-plagued car that is the state of Florida to his successor, Charlie Crist, and heading off into a South Florida sunset.

The former guv vowed to stay out of the media and out of politics — in deference to the current guv, despite their ideological (Crist is more moderate) and stylistic (Bush is more detail-oriented) differences.

But Bush never promised to stay out of the wonky end of Florida public policy, especially in education and socially conservative causes such as fighting against gambling. The result is that a little more than a year after leaving office, Jeb Bush remains a powerful force in Florida.

"Jeb is showing how good he is out of office right now," said one Republican in Tampa Bay, who requested anonymity because he's on the ballot this year. "Jeb Bush and the Jeb Bush method of government remains a very popular underlying Republican theme. Charlie Crist is tremendously popular for his political skills, but Jeb Bush is equally popular for his ability to implement changes to government."

Bush's continued influence is no accident.

He controls two education foundations and remains in touch — informally by all accounts — with many of his key aides and supporters. He has money to pursue his causes; one foundation brought in $1.4 million in 2006, the last year available in federal tax records for the nonprofit.

His surrogates and former aides dot all of the important state government commissions. Look at the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, for example. Commission member Patricia Levesque also serves as executive director for Bush's two foundations and was his deputy chief of staff when he was governor. Fellow commissioner Roberto "Bobby" Martinez was general counsel to Bush's 1998 transition team. And Brian Yablonski, a top official at the St. Joe Company, which owns tremendous amounts of Florida real estate, is a commissioner and on the board of directors at Bush's two foundations. (Oh, forgot to mention that he is also a former deputy chief of staff from the Bush Governor's Office.)

Instead of open politicking, Bush's agenda benefits from his extensive network, and from wealthy, influential fundraisers who remain loyal to him. That includes St. Petersburg HMO founder A.K. Desai (who is on the state Board of Education) and South Florida fundraiser Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah (a board member for both Bush foundations and a member of Florida's Board of Governors, overseeing the state's higher education system).

More important is the fact that Bush's allegiance to Reagan conservatism remains the bedrock of the Republican Party in the state, despite the moderating influence of the current governor.

You can hardly find a contentious issue in the state in the past year that doesn't directly or indirectly trace itself to Bush. When the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission voted to put school vouchers on the November ballot, it was his surrogates — Levesque and Martinez — who led the push. When it came to including the word "evolution" in public school curriculum standards, the loudest nay on the Board of Education came from a former Bush administration official. The controversial CSX rail deal in Orlando and Lakeland? Set into motion very quietly during the Bush administration.

Now, Bush himself is slowly emerging. Earlier this year, he openly criticized a Florida Senate plan for an elected education commissioner. Other Bush sightings include: In February, Bush endorsed John McCain for the presidency. In March, he gave his first in-depth interview since leaving office in 2006, mainly to convince legislators and Crist not to expand gambling in the state as an answer to shrinking state revenues.

"You've sort of seen him tinkering around the edges, which is very much unlike the way he was as governor," said Daryl Paulson, a political science professor at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg and close observer of Republican politics. "To some extent, this is a completely new approach for him. At the very least, it's been very respectful."

His biggest supporters in the GOP agree.

"It is only recently that we have seen him weigh in on some of his initiatives," said Bill Bunkley, a Christian radio talk show host in Tampa and a Bush supporter.

"There's certainly some issues where his positions are still the centerpiece," added Todd Pressman, a Republican political and development consultant in Tampa Bay. "But I don't think you can say his agenda is still shaping all of Florida."

No, only the important issues: education, the budget, gambling, growth, transportation.

But despite Bush's increasing instances in the public eye, he remains an intensely sub rosa politician. That one lengthy interview he granted? It was with a friendly editor, James A. Smith Sr. of the Florida Baptist Witness. Attempts by the state's newspaper reporters to gain follow-up interviews were turned down. Even friends such as Bunkley have agreed not to seek further media ops with Bush until the ex-governor is ready to raise his public profile.

For the most part, Bush's interaction with the mainstream media has consisted of a sentence or two e-mailed to a reporter in reaction to a story, like this instance in December 2007, when the St. Petersburg Times began reporting that the majority of junk investments held by the state was sold to Florida by Lehman Bros. — the very firm that hired Bush after he got out of office. Was he involved in buying those investments as governor? Bush's digital response: "The answer to your question is an emphatic no." (The Securities and Exchange Commission is now looking into how the State Board of Administration came to buy so much Lehman junk. Stay tuned.)

For this story, Bush's education foundation press secretary said the former governor was traveling and unavailable for comment.

It is the image of Jeb the governor — poring through reports, hunched over his computer, injecting a high-energy infusion into the lackadaisical state government — that is now serving him well in his new job as ex-governor.

"Let's face it; Jeb was a policy wonk," Bunkley said. "Whether you agreed with him or not, he was a guy who got in there and worried about the minutiae. I'm not criticizing the current governor, but the current governor is not a policy wonk. He is more of a big picture guy."

"A lot of what he did [during his term in office,] he was the architect; it was not a surrogate here or a surrogate there," Bunkley said. Now, "a lot of the people are willing to continue with a lot of the things that he started."

And so is he — for some time to come, apparently, as he hinted in January when he launched the second of his two education foundations. "Reform is never finished and success is never final," Bush said. "A perpetual cycle of reform will lead to sustained improvement for the long term."

Bush would seem to be perfectly poised, and young enough at 55, to make a run for the presidency somewhere down the road. It is an office he was groomed for, popular wisdom holds, but it was denied him when he lost to Chiles. Then his brother unexpectedly beat Ann Richards in Texas, leap-frogging ahead in the Bush dynastic chain.

Jeb maintains a national presence in the party, giving speeches throughout the country. He's been talking with Newt Gingrich, who helped orchestrate the last big Republican surge in 1994, "about the 21st Century conservative and what that means and the party's direction once his brother leaves office," Bunkley said. And despite his brother's abysmal public approval ratings, things can change fast in politics. A scenario popular among some Republicans expects McCain to lose in November, leaving a 2012 race against President Obama wide open for Jeb Bush, especially if Democrats don't deliver despite full control of Congress and the presidency.

"Time does heal wounds in politics, and people do have short memories," Paulson, the political scientist, said. "It all depends on national circumstances and issues in the country [and depends] on who wins the presidency this year."

And on Jeb's desire.

"The question is whether he is going to have the heart to do it," Pressman said. "I was talking to him once, and he said he was asked how old he was, and he answered, in human years or dog years? And he explained that every one of these campaigns takes seven years out of his life.

"I don't know what his perspective on that now is. Time does curious things to you."

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