Hispanic consciousness lends weight to Jeb Bush as GOP eyes 2016 presidential race

She was almost like a member of the family. An employee, but almost one of them.

For three years, Maria Magdalena Romero had tended to the suburban Miami home of Jeb and Columba Bush, had helped to raise their three children, had twined into the fabric of their lives.

Then, with lurching swiftness, she was yanked away. On a mild winter morning in 1991, two immigration agents appeared at the door of the family home looking for the woman Bush’s younger son and namesake, then just 10 years old, remembers as “a super nice lady.” They carried deportation orders.

It didn’t matter that Bush’s father was president of the United States at the time or that a Secret Service agent had answered the door. Romero, who was in the country illegally but had a work permit, wasn’t getting a reprieve.

“It was a difficult time for all of us, but most of all for Maria,” Jeb Bush said in an e-mail about that day. His son, Jeb Jr., hadn’t even realized she’d been deported. “I thought she just left,” Jeb Jr. said in a recent interview.

That long-ago deportation is one among many inflection points for the elder Bush in what has been a lifetime of intimate proximity to America’s Hispanic community, to its searing pain and its buoyant joy, to its mores and its politics. While Republicans cast about for leaders who can connect with Spanish-speaking voters, this tall Texas native with the Mexican American wife has remarkably come to represent a kind of Hispanic consciousness for the party.

Living in Miami, mixing effortlessly with that city’s Cuban American power base and speaking near-flawless Spanish, Bush has managed to embody an adopted culture that has enthusiastically adopted him. As former commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez put it at last week’s Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami, the former Florida governor is “just as Hispanic as everyone in this room, and maybe a little more.”

It is a distinction that lends considerable weight to Bush — who was successful in attracting votes from both Republican and Democratic Latinos in his gubernatorial races — in the handicapping for 2016’s GOP presidential candidates. Speculation about another Bush presidency is permeating the festivities this week as Bush, 60, joins his presidential brother and father and the rest of the family in Dallas for the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. In a C-Span interview airing Wednesday night, George W. Bush stokes the speculation about his brother’s presidential prospects, saying, “My first advice is: Run.”

Some may see a third Bush White House as too much to take. Democrats and other critics, though acknowledging the political benefits of his Hispanic connections, say Jeb Bush’s conservative views on health care, economics and other issues put him out of step with the heavily Democratic Latino voter base.

Yet, admirers contend, his unusual links to the Latino community set him apart in the GOP and in American politics writ large, making him an ideal fit for the new America.

“Who do you want as a candidate?” asked Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban American Republican from Miami. “Imagine if you could find somebody who is married to a Mexican . . . then they have children who look Hispanic. Then it would be like, ‘There’s nobody better.’ It’s him.”

The unlikely evolution of John Ellis “Jeb” Bush into a sort of honorary Hispanic loops back to 1970 and a tree-lined square in Leon, a colonial-era city in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Bush, then a teenager and student at the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., was in Mexico for a three-month exchange program. One Sunday, he spotted a girl in the back of a car promenading around the square. She struck him as “beautiful,” and so did her name: Columba Garnica de Gallo.

They courted by phone and letters, but the teenager from Mexico had her doubts. “I never thought I would marry him. . . . One thinks about the differences in culture and things like that,” Columba Bush, who now seldom gives interviews, once told the Miami Herald.

Those cultural barriers were significant. She was Catholic; he’d been raised Episcopalian. She spoke little English. But as he drew her into his culture, she drew him into hers. He already spoke her language fairly well; then he converted to her religion. They were married in 1974 in a small ceremony at a Catholic student center at the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated with a degree in Latin American affairs.

“We were not an easy family to marry into,” Bush’s mother, Barbara, wrote in her memoir. “I had found the big Bush family a little overwhelming twenty-nine years before, so I could imagine Colu’s feelings! To complicate things she spoke very little English then, although she became fluent very quickly.”

Bush’s older brother, George W., had famously traveled abroad little before becoming president. Jeb Bush moved abroad. Early in his marriage, the couple settled in Caracas, Venezuela, where Bush served as a vice president and branch manager for Texas Commerce Bank.

In Caracas, Bush mingled with Latin America’s elite, connections he was able to draw upon in later years, said Jorge Arrizurieta, a Miami business executive who worked with Bush’s gubernatorial administration on Latin America’s trade issues. The couple left Venezuela in 1979, when Bush’s father began setting in motion his presidential campaign. Jeb Bush, with his ready facility for Spanish, was dispatched to Miami to help with the effort.

In Venezuela and later in Miami, Bush became a master at picking up cultural cues. “He loves all these Cubanisms . . . these phrases with double meanings,” Arrizurieta said. Bush will tap his elbow when someone is being cheap or evoke the clipped word “no” to express surprise or disgust, he added. He’s a “gringo aplatanado,” Arrizurieta said, using a phrase that roughly translates to “he’s gone native.”

The family settled in Miami after the 1980 presidential campaign, drawn by a sense of boundless opportunity and because of its acceptance of Hispanics. “They felt comfortable there,” Jeb Jr. said. “It’s such a diverse and vibrant culture. We definitely grew up with the Cuban culture, and a lot of my friends were from Colombia and Chile and Argentina, and a lot of Brazilians as well.” At home, the Bushes, especially Columba, were more likely to communicate in Spanish than in English. “My first language when I was a little person was Spanish,” the younger Bush said.

Jeb Bush went into business with a politically connected Cuban American developer, Armando Codina, who had been the Florida chairman of his father’s unsuccessful 1980 presidential campaign. Jeb Jr. said his father took it upon himself to master an informal — and sometimes R-rated — Cuban lexicon, occasionally unleashing slang phrases in Spanish during business meetings or around the real estate development office that father and son now share.

“He loves those,” Jeb Jr. said. “Sometimes, they’re a little vulgar. He knows about 100 of them.” One of his father’s favorites is a Spanish expression that essentially translates to “You think you’re the last hard-boiled egg at the picnic.”

“In Texas, it’d be, ‘Big hat, no cattle,’ ” Jeb Jr. said.

“He gets all the nuances,” said Charles Garcia, a U.S.-born Panamanian businessman and prominent political commentator whom Bush appointed to serve on a state education board. “He gets close to you. He kisses you on the cheek.” Once, Garcia was sitting with a group of “heavy-duty Democrats” waiting for Bush to join a meeting via conference call. They were skeptical about the Republican, but when Bush got on the call, he wowed them, in part, by sprinkling his comments with Spanish phrases.

The family’s ethnicity sometimes led to uncomfortable episodes. In one unscripted moment during the 1988 campaign, George H.W. Bush referred to Jeb Bush’s children as the “little brown ones.” The remark drew criticism from some Mexican Americans who considered it offensive. The president’s son sought to quell the controversy by saying it was a term of affection.

“This is proof of the crazy side of politics,” Jeb Bush was widely quoted as saying then. “I know my father loves my sons very much. He is proud of them, and this has hurt him.” But it has proved enduring. Two and a half decades later, the early coverage of the current campaign for Texas land commissioner of Jeb Bush’s older son, George P. Bush, invariably references his distinction as one of those “little brown ones.” George P., widely viewed as his generation’s heir to the family political dynasty, has made his Mexican American heritage a centerpiece of his public image over the years. In one ad targeting Hispanic voters in 2000, George P. declared, “I’m a young Latino in the U.S. and very proud of my bloodline.” He concluded: “I have an uncle that is running for president. . . . His name? Same as mine. George Bush.”

George P.’s ethnicity is now generally seen as a political strength in Texas, whereas it once might have been considered a liability. And it adds to his possible national appeal in the years to come as demographic shifts dramatically increase the size of the Latino electorate.

In Miami, Jeb Bush’s ability to speak Spanish deepened his emotional connections and opened doors. When he’d first arrived to help with his father’s presidential campaign, his grasp of the language was firm but his intonation was off, recalled Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez, a Cuban American lawyer who met Jeb Bush at a phone bank during the campaign and later served as his gubernatorial general counsel.

As the years went by, his ear improved. He would hold news conferences in English and Spanish, and he sounded legit. He didn’t sound Cuban; he didn’t swallow the end of words. But he didn’t sound like a poser either. “It’s kind of a pretty neutral accent,” said Diaz-Balart, the Florida congressman. “He doesn’t have a Mexican accent either.”

Knowing how to speak Spanish, in some respects, gave Bush an entry point into the Hispanic community that even some of those with Hispanic roots didn’t have. “Culturally, Jeb is even more Hispanic than many in the young generation of Hispanics in America today,” said Al Cardenas, a Miami lawyer and close Bush friend who is chairman of the American Conservative Union. “Not only is his cultural affinity seamless with us, but he speaks the language, something that probably 50 percent of the younger generation do not. He’s totally bilingual and bicultural in every sense.”

In his adopted home city, Bush found himself in a community with an ear attuned to pandering. If he’d been faking it, everyone would have known, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in an interview. “There’s never an Anglo Jeb and then a turn-on-the-Hispanic Jeb,” said Gimenez, who tees off most Sunday mornings minutes after Bush’s 7 a.m. tee time at the golf course at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla.

But when the Bushes left the Caribbean atmosphere of Miami for parts of northern Florida that sometimes felt more like the Deep South, they didn’t always encounter such a welcoming environment. One such episode — recounted by Bush at a campaign appearance and during a debate in his 1998 governor’s race — occurred in the late 1980s, when Bush served as Florida’s commerce secretary and temporarily moved his family north to Tallahassee. At one of George P. Bush’s baseball games, Jeb Bush told audiences, someone in the stands yelled out that the seventh grader was a “spic.”

“His skin is darker, because my wife is from Mexico,” Bush told an audience at a predominantly African American church during the campaign’s final days. “He has been discriminated against . . . .This was my family. There is hatred out there.” Bush declined a request to discuss the incident for this story.

In the governor’s office, Bush was forever handing out books, said Rodriguez, his general counsel. Usually they had something to do with Hispanic themes. On their first day on the job, top employees would often receive a gift from Bush: a copy of the book “A Message to Garcia,” about the U.S. army officer who delivered an important message to Calixto Garcia, the Cuban rebel general. Bush would inscribe the books, which he accumulated by the dozens, with the note, “Be a messenger.” He was always giving Rodriguez books, but there were only two that he ever asked her to make sure she returned. Of course, they were about Cuba: “After Fidel,” by the former CIA officer Brian Latell, and “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” by the Yale professor Carlos Eire.

In Republican circles, Bush is legendary for his otherworldly attention to detail. When Rodriguez would pass along texts written in Spanish for the governor’s review, he’d battle her over minute points of grammar.

With confidantes inside and outside the governor’s office, Bush took to communicating in some combination of two languages. “I usually speak and write in Spanish with him, shifting seamlessly between English and Spanish,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican political commentator.

Navarro said she got to know Bush in 1997, the year before he was elected governor, when he pitched in to help lobby Congress to pass an immigration law to assist people who had fled Navarro’s native Nicaragua. Bush, she said, called Republican leaders including Newt Gingrich and Bill Frist. The next year, he lobbied for a similar bill to help Haitians. “It had a big impact,” Navarro said.

Bush has leaned on his family story to illustrate political points. In 2006, during the fierce battle over what ultimately ended up as a failed immigration reform proposal, he vented late one evening in an e-mail to a reporter. “My wife came here legally, but it hurts her just as it hurts me when people give the perception that all immigrants are bad,” he wrote.

A staunch conservative on taxes and social issues, Bush developed a reputation as a reliable centrist, perhaps even a liberal, on immigration. He argued for the Dream Act — which would give an opportunity for citizenship to the children brought to this country illegally by their parents — and for giving driver’s licenses to those who entered illegally. And he spoke out in favor of creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, a position that he reversed in a controversial book released in March. He then reversed himself again by praising proposed legislation crafted by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that includes a path to citizenship. His uncharacteristic vacillation has called into question his potential appeal to a broad swath of Latino voters.

“I think it’s fair to say that, outside of Miami, Gov. Bush has a very limited relationship with the Latino community,” said Eliseo Medina, who as secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union is one of the country’s most senior Hispanic labor organizers. “While he was good on immigration (up until his book stumble), that is only one issue,” Medina wrote in an e-mail. “Affordable health care access; good jobs that pay a decent wage and provide access to benefits; workers rights; and education are all key issues for Latinos achieving the American dream. Where he stands on issues like this will be hugely important to his political future in the Latino community. . . . A Mexican wife can’t help him with that.”

Public life aside, Hispanic culture remains central to Bush’s private orbit.

He sometimes cooks the Sunday night family meal or at least prepares a famously spicy guacamole from scratch. It was a tradition he kept even in the governor’s mansion. It wasn’t unusual to spot Bush grocery shopping for cilantro on a Sunday afternoon while he was governor.

Jeb Jr.’s mother speaks to him exclusively in Spanish, even though his grasp of the language has gotten a bit rusty. And he has asked his father to speak Spanish with his 19-month-old daughter, so she’ll grow up fluent in both languages. What remains to be seen is whether one particular word will be a required element of her vocabulary: presidente.

Wallsten reported from Washington. Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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