POLITICS

Knowing Jeb: A friend's tales about the latest Bush to run for president

06/15/2015 04:52 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT
WASHINGTON - Americans might not know the newest U.S. presidential candidate like they know his dad and brother, both of whom have occupied the White House.

But Willard Fair does.

The Miami man shared some stories about his professional partner and friend Jeb Bush, who formally opened his campaign Monday to follow in the footsteps of his father George and brother, George W.

Fair founded Florida's first charter school with Bush. He described some of his strengths, weakness, and even contradictions: for a limited-government conservative, Bush could be quite meddlesome as Florida governor.

—The conservative: During his first gubernatorial run in 1994, Bush described himself as a "head-banging conservative" and threatened to close the state's education department.

He earned Fair's admiration during a public forum, where he was asked what he'd do for black people. Bush replied: "Probably nothing." It was music to the ears of the Miami civil-rights activist, who shared similar views on the limitations of government: "I said, 'That's my man.'"

Bush managed to implement a broad conservative agenda, after winning in 1998 and 2002.

He reduced the state workforce by 12 per cent; cut taxes $19 billion; privatized many schools, child protection, state-park services and prison meals. He reduced affirmative action and made Florida one of the most gun-friendly states — making it easier to carry concealed weapons, prohibiting gun registries and signing the landmark self-defence law, Stand Your Ground. He tried reducing abortion access, but was repeatedly rebuffed by the courts.

His legacy is hotly debated. The debate was fuelled after he left office by deaths in the child-protection system and the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

—The policy wonk: In 1995, he visited Fair to donate leftover campaign funds for community programs. Fair figured the meeting would last five minutes. It lasted an hour and a half.

By its conclusion, Bush had enlisted a new ally in a favourite cause — education reform. Fair campaigned for a new law allowing publicly funded, privately run charter schools. He faced resistance in his own community over the Republican-led initiative: "For them, the 'R' in Republican stands for 'racists,'" Fair said. The law passed in 1996.

Fair and Bush co-founded the state's first charter school. It received high marks initially but its finances became a mess later, when Bush was governor and less involved. It's now closed. But test scores have mostly improved in the state and more than 100,000 Floridians are now enrolled in charter schools.

Bush delved deeply into policy files. In his book, "Conservative Hurricane," political scientist Matthew Corrigan describes numerous mid-level bureaucrats getting emails and phone calls from the governor.

Fair describes a difference with his hands-off brother: "George (W.) is a delegater. Jeb is not. Jeb is on top of it... If you're the chief of police, he wants to know about being the chief of police, so that he can guide you."

If there's a weakness, Fair says it's that Bush is more comfortable talking policy with a small group, than delivering speeches to crowds, the kind of thing his brother thrived on.

—The activist: For a believer in limited government, Bush could be quite hands-on. Fair recalls a plane trip where they spotted an oil rig along the Florida coast.

He says Bush observed that the company probably had no minority workers. From across the plane, Fair shot back: "'So what you gonna do about it?'"

The next time they met, Bush told him he'd contacted the company and it had no black employees. Within two weeks, it had some.

He says Bush said: "'That's what I did about it.'"

Bush sought to extend his reach into other government branches. Aside from abortion, he fought the courts when they ordered a feeding tube removed from brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo.

"Though Bush talked repeatedly about limiting the power of government," Corrigan wrote, "he did not believe in limiting the power of the executive."