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The Re-Making of a Conservative

The Jeb Bush Mirage

by ALAN FARAGO

Anyone familiar with the record of Jeb Bush’s two terms as Florida governor will be rubbing their eyes at the recent NY Times profile depicting Bush as “an intellectual in search of new ideas, a serial consulter of outsiders who relishes animated debate and a probing manager who eagerly burrows into the bureaucratic details.” (Jeb Bush Gives Party Something to Think About, New York Times, May 24, 2014)

Jeb was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. In 1994 he narrowly lost his first political race to the late Lawton Chiles. To the right-wing of the GOP, it was a glitch. As a result of that loss, George W. and not Jeb was in line to be the Republican contender for president in 2000. Twenty years later, in 2014, Jeb Bush, longtime advisors, and the deepest fundraising network in Republican politics is pushing a version of Jeb Bush into the media headlights. That version, detailed in the New York Times puffery, bears scant resemblance to the Jeb Bush who was governor.

Jeb could be a micromanager. But “an intellectual in search of new ideas”? Hardly. Jeb made his mark as a micromanager by requiring adherence to preconceived ideas, like those developed by his conservative think tank, The Foundation For Florida’s Future. “A serial consulter of outsider who relishes animated debate”? Debate requires two sides of an argument, and Bush rarely paid attention — more frequently was dismissive than not — of those who dared rebut what he had already decided.

The depiction by the New York Times may be the portrait Bush advisors want to paint for the public, but it doesn’t resemble the Jeb Bush who used Florida as a model for radical conservative experiments.

“Those who have hashed over policy and politics with Mr. Bush describe him as a conservative animated less by rigid ideology than a technocrat’s quest to identify which solutions work best.” Well no, New York Times. That is just wrong.

Instead of consulting with those who tried to change Jeb’s mind or offer different points of view, the Times relied on an author and a conservative think tank executive (from the American Enterprise Institute, no less) to polish Jeb’s intellectual credentials. It’s nonsense.

“The approach, aides said, suffused his government, which became a hothouse for ambitious, mostly conservative policy programs. They included assigning A through F grades to public schools, offering performance bonuses to government workers, privatizing many public services and, through billions of dollars in land purchases, locking in the conservation of the Everglades.”

if Jeb’s administration was “a hothouse for ambitious, mostly conservative policy programs” it took place behind a wall of secrecy that few outsiders ever penetrated. That Jeb determined to use the power of his first elected office to advance a highly conservative agenda was never in doubt, but he was also closed-minded. Inclusive? Relishing debate?

In 2000, it took a phone call from his father to bring an end to a protest by African American state legislators. Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill lead a 25 hour sit-in, in the governor’s waiting room, because Jeb refused to even hear them out on important policy issues.

Jeb’s policy programs were not “mostly” conservative, they were universally conservative and applied across a range of policy issues with a broad brush, helping pave the way for powerful campaign contributors who profited mightily from the housing boom — kindled by Jeb’s donor base in Miami — and then the subsequent crash from which Florida has yet to emerge.

The alliances Jeb forged between big business insiders, like the Council of 100 in Florida run — in those early 2000′s — by Al Hoffman, chairman of both Bush brothers’ campaign finance committees, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce has rushed to the rescue of the flagging campaign of the current governor, embattled Rick Scott. Bush, with Hoffman’s help and encouragement, laid the groundwork for a pro-business, anti-environmental agenda that boosted suburban sprawl at the expense of wetlands and water quality. Eventually in 2008, Hoffman’s company, WCI Communities, Inc., declared bankruptcy. Jeb’s first consultant job after leaving the Governor’s Mansion in 2008 was for the state’s biggest bond brokers, Lehman Brothers. At virtually the same time Jeb was set in motion by Lehman Brothers to solicit an equity investment by Carlos Slim, the Mexican multi-billionaire, WCI Communities declared bankruptcy with over $1.8 billion in debt. The value of the company’s stock was halved overnight. The Lehman Brother’s collapse cost the state of Florida well over $1 billion. (Florida stands to lost $1 billion because of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, Tampa Bay Times, June 4, 2009)

How conservative ideologies embraced by Jeb Bush, without room for dissent or debate, masked profit schemes built on fraudulent financial footings that caused housing to boom, then collapse, dragging the nation’s economy into a prolonged spiral downward: this perspective is nowhere to be found in the New York Times sunny portrait of another Bush.

As to assigning A to F grades to public schools, that’s a red herring for the Bush initiative assigning stifling curriculum standards across the state in a “one size fits all approach” that Republicans otherwise abhor. “Offering performance bonuses to government workers”? Compare that to the Bush inaugural speech in 2003 where he exulted in his promise to empty government buildings of workers. “Locking in the conservation of the Everglades”?

On that one, it is hard to know where to begin.

But let’s try with one example: the land purchase of Palm Beach Aggregates in West Palm Beach — Jeb’s first as governor– that eventually landed three county commissioners in federal prison and even then was such an exorbitant expense (benefiting insiders) that it set a gross example of land pricing the state would have to bear for buying out other insiders in subsequent transactions. Or how about the failed plan to locale in Florida a new Scripps Institute on a massive farm in former Everglades wetlands that Jeb attempted to shoe-horn, also in Western Palm Beach County, around state environmental rules and regulations? Then, Ave Maria University — founded by ultra-conservative, Republican Tom Monahan of Domino’s Pizza — on the other side of the Everglades in remnant wetlands, creating a massive urban footprint in Florida panther habitat. The list goes on.

The fact is that Jeb’s concern for the Everglades was about water supply for the cities, and the outsourcing of water management district functions — including the appointment of a key campaign supporter and state GOP chair, Al Cardenas, to run the counsel operations of the South Florida Water Management District — assured massive politicization of water related issues on behalf of Jeb’s pre-conceived notions.

If you really want to dive into one of those pre-conceived notions, turn to his Foundation for Florida’s Future monograph from 1996, “The Next Step in Environmental Protection: A Move Toward Free-Market Environmentalism”. There Denver Stutler touts the premise of wetlands mitigation banking. Instead of government regulation, private industry would “cooperate” to protect wetlands, and in doing so would provide a more effective public benefit than regulation.

A private firm called ECOBANK is singled out for being an innovative, conservative response to a new business ethic driven by reasonable, conservative values. Stutler, an ECOBANK principal who would later become a trusted Bush aide in the Governor’s Mansion and Florida Secretary of Transportation, wrote, “ECOBANK is an example of a coming trend in environmental protection that uses a new vision to evaluate and establish a logical approach in private mitigation banking (of wetlands)… The strategy for effective private mitigation banking, like ECOBANK’s, is to establish “megabucks” to support complete ecosystem restoration and maintenance, while allowing credits to be produced quickly and economically. These megabucks will be able to serve the needs of all customers for many years. Moreover, this market based approach using private investment will substantially increase both the pace of restoration of sensitive lands and the amount of land acquired for public benefit.” He concluded: “Everyone from concerned citizens to active players, and most importantly our natural environment, will benefit from the new balanced mitigation approach.”

By 2006, the Tampa Bay Times published its groundbreaking series by Craig Pittman, Vanishing Wetlands. The series included: “The ‘Bad Apple’ of wetlands banking: Held up to Congress as a shining example of the promise of wetland mitigation banking, their business went belly up.” (December 18, 2006) The company that went bankrupt? ECOBANK.

“Jeb Bush Gives Party Something to Think About” gives discerning readers plenty to think about: namely, what is going on at The New York Times.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net