Jeb Bush got his way, and then he got a firestorm

He got his way.
Then he got a mess.

He got his way. Then he got a mess.

As Florida governor, Jeb Bush moved fast to end affirmative action in his state. The result wasn’t ‘One Florida.’

Published on January 7, 2016

Jeb Bush was pacing.

Onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, the former Florida governor boasted that he had wiped out affirmative action with the stroke of his gubernatorial pen.

“I eliminated affirmative action by executive order — trust me, there were a lot of people upset about this,” he told the crowd. “But through hard work, we ended up having a system where there were more African American and Hispanic kids attending our university system than prior to the system that was discriminatory.”

Above: Jeb Bush speaks at Scott Brown's "No BS BBQ" in Rye, N.H., in early November. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

But his 1999 decision to eliminate affirmative action was not nearly as clear and simple as he makes it sound today, and neither are its results. Instead, Bush was making a complicated political play under significant time pressure.

The Deciders

Jeb Bush

Nothing reveals more about politicians than the decisions they make — why they chose to do something, how they made it happen, what came of it. In the days before the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, The Washington Post is exploring one key choice by each leading presidential candidate and explain the insight it offers into the way he or she might operate in the White House.

More in this series

Ben Carson: From inspiring to polarizing

John Kasich: Spurning the party line

Jeb Bush: He got his way. Then he got a mess.

Carly Fiorina: Pushing ahead and paying the price

Marco Rubio: Marco Rubio’s cold war

Chris Christie: Atlantic City’s Mr. Fix-It

Donald Trump: Remade by reality TV

Ted Cruz: Ambition enough for two

Hillary Clinton: A tough call on Libya that still haunts

Bernie Sanders: His most radical move

Those who know him well say his actions on a divisive, high-stakes issue are emblematic of his style: hard-charging, daring, but with little patience for opposing points of view.

On affirmative action, Bush was not just burnishing his conservative credentials by abolishing what he called “stupid” and discriminatory race-based set-asides in Florida’s higher-education system and government-contracting sphere. He also was trying to preserve a pipeline to education and employment opportunities for minorities that would, he promised, actually improve their access to college and state contracts.

And perhaps just as importantly, he was attempting to block California-based activist Ward Connerly from putting an affirmative-action referendum on the November 2000 Florida ballot. That same ballot would, it was widely presumed, feature George W. Bush as the Republican nominee for president. Florida was a crucial swing state. The Connerly referendum would probably bring out droves of African American, overwhelmingly Democratic voters who would oppose the measure and most likely vote against his big brother.

Jeb Bush decided he couldn’t let any of that happen.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to the media 1999 in Tallahassee after signing an executive order ending the consideration of race and ethnicity as factors in university admissions and barring racial set-asides in state contracting decisions. (Michael Burchfield/AP)

‘He wants a war’

On the afternoon of Jan. 20, 1999, Connerly strode into the Florida governor’s office. Connerly had made himself into a political lighting rod, known across the nation as the black man who wanted to end affirmative action.

A wealthy, conservative Republican and member of the California Board of Regents, he had pushed through contentious affirmative-action referendum measures that passed in California in 1996 and Washington state in 1998. Now he wanted to do the same thing in Florida, one of the country’s most diverse states.

But, 30 seconds into his sit-down with a fellow wealthy, conservative Republican, Connerly discovered that he and the governor did not share the same agenda.

“He’d already made up his mind, and we were just going through the motions,” Connerly said in a recent interview. “He was very civil, very polite . . . but he made it clear he would be an obstacle to us. I had no doubt he was concerned with the impending [presidential] election.”

Bush, like a number of principal players in the ensuing drama, declined numerous opportunities to comment for this article. But Sally Bradshaw, Bush’s chief of staff at the time and now a senior adviser to his presidential campaign, calls Connerly’s oft-repeated view “cynical.”

Connerly picked Florida and that election cycle. Once he did, Bush had to act or watch assistance to his state’s minorities almost certainly be wiped out — Connerly’s proposed referendum was favored 2 to 1 in polls, she noted.

“I remember a lot of conversations about how to respond to Connerly and how to increase opportunity for minorities and, in particular, children facing poverty,” Bradshaw said. “. . . I never once remember a conversation driven by the fact that his brother might run for president.”

At the time, Bush bashed Connerly. “He wants a war,” Bush told reporters. “I’m a lover. I can’t imagine doing what he’s talking about.”

The governor then dropped the issue publicly. He had made education reform a key issue of his 1998 campaign — school vouchers were huge — but affirmative action was nowhere on the radar screen.

But privately, he directed top aides to quickly create an alternative to affirmative action. If they could put one in place fast enough, they could render Connerly’s proposed referendum moot.

Bush was in perfect political position to do so. Republicans controlled the state House and Senate, and Democrats were deeply opposed to Connerly, too. This afforded him the opportunity to build bipartisan consensus on a volatile issue and unite the state against an outside activist.

That was not how Bush worked. He wanted to reshape the state in a hurry, and not just on affirmative action. He liked to talk about his “big, hairy audacious goals” on school vouchers, on the Everglades, on faith-based prisons. “Conservative Hurricane” is the title of one book that chronicles his administration.

“He wasn’t looking to tinker around the edges but to fundamentally change the way government worked,” said Cory Tilley, Bush’s former deputy chief of staff. “In this case, the governor was looking to avoid a very divisive fight for the state and declare a great new policy for minorities that worked in a modern, sensible way.”

Les Miller, leader of the Democrats in the state House and Senate when Bush was in office, said he and his party colleagues found him brusque and often inflexible. “It was his way or the highway,” Miller said. “I met with him [one-on-one] for about two minutes right after he was elected, and that was it.”

“With a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Democrats had no relevancy whatsoever,” Miller said, adding, “He was like, ‘I don’t have to talk to you guys.’ ”

Bush dubbed his proposal to end affirmative action “One Florida,” a call to unite the state. But, it was clear, he expected Florida to unite around him.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sits with state lawmakers in January 2000 to negotiate a deal to end a sit-in staged by members of the legislative black caucus at the governor's offices. (Mark Foley/AP)

‘Inclusion, not division’

The One Florida plan was developed by key Bush staffers. They consulted with 35 to 40 leaders throughout the state, many of them minorities but most already in agreement with Bush politically.

Adam Herbert, a black Republican who served as the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, helped pen the new university admissions policy. T. Willard Fair, a civil-rights-era activist and president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, also provided feedback. Fair, a political independent, had teamed with Bush the previous year to open the state’s first charter school, in Miami’s Liberty City.

The resulting educational component was known as “Talented Twenty” and based on a program that George W. Bush had launched as governor of Texas. It guaranteed admission to a state university for students who finished in the top 20 percent of their high school class, as long as they had the necessary credit hours. While race would no longer be taken into consideration, socioeconomic status, disability, geography would factor into admissions criteria — along with whether students were the first in their families to attend college.

The new business program aimed at minorities was developed and overseen by Frank Jimenez, a deputy chief of staff. The existing model was badly broken, with just 1 percent of state business going to minorities. Here, the plan was to streamline the process for companies to register as minority-owned. Loopholes that had been allowing state agencies to omit huge contracts from consideration were closed. Workshops would be held to introduce state procurement officers to the heads of businesses owned by minorities and women. Directors of state agencies were accountable to the governor for results.

Once the new initiatives were prepared, Bush’s staff reached out to state Sen. Daryl Jones, a Democrat who chaired the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators. They wanted him to lead a 17-member task force to implement the plan.

“I sat in Daryl Jones’s living room before the rollout, and he enthusiastically agreed to chair the task force,” said Jimenez, now general counsel at Raytheon.

Bush’s decision to ignore the other Democratic lawmakers who represented the vast majority of black Floridians was not an oversight, said John McKager Stipanovich, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist, longtime Bush friend and former campaign consultant.

“He wasn’t disdainful, but every year the black caucus wants to meet with the governor,” Stipanovich said. “Doesn’t matter what it’s about, they want a meeting. Then they’ll come out of the meeting and say the governor is an idiot. He just decided to skip that part.”

On Nov. 9, 1999 — 10 months after Bush showed Connerly the door and one year before the presidential ballot — the governor stepped in front of an illuminated backdrop, with a silhouette of the state map filled with black, brown and white faces and emblazoned with the words “One Florida Initiative.”

“This is a statement of inclusion, not division,” Bush said, extolling the virtues of Executive Order 99-281. “The use of racial and gender set-asides, preferences and quotas is considered divisive and unfair by the vast majority of Floridians,” read the order.

Jones, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was effusive. “I want them implemented quickly and effectively,” he told reporters of Bush’s new initiatives. “I want to support those efforts.”

The policy needed only an approving vote from the Board of Regents and funding from the legislature to support scholarships.

Media coverage was positive, if cautious. “An important, even bold step to advance the goal of equal opportunity,” editorialized the Miami Herald, which called it “a worthy idea.”

But the triumphant rollout quickly gave way to a fierce political backlash.

The state’s black caucus, incensed with Jones for not consulting with it, threatened a coup. Backpedaling, Jones quit the task force seven days after the news conference.

Bush sent him an intemperate public letter saying that his resignation “was based on nothing more than political considerations” and that critical comments he made about the executive order served to “cheapen the public discourse on such an important topic.”

The governor, feeling burned, aides say, then refused to meet with two black state legislators: Sen. Kendrick Meek (son of then-U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, an influential Florida Democrat who had fought for integration) and Rep. Anthony Hill.

On Jan. 18, with the Board of Regents vote approaching, Meek and Hill were talking with Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan in his office. As Meek and Hill have told it, Bush, whose offices were in the same suite, passed by and snapped that they “better get a blanket” if they were waiting on him to change his mind — setting off a impromptu sit-in.

State Rep. Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami) leads legislators in verses of ''We Shall Overcome'' outside the governor's suite in Tallahassee during the 2000 sit-in. (Mark Foley/AP)

Bradshaw remembers the pair staging the sit-in before Bush even knew it was happening: “I’ve always believed it was completely pre-arranged — a political stunt.”

Whatever the origin, Hill and Meek called reporters, who came running. Suddenly there were a dozen uninvited people in the governor’s suite at 9 p.m., saying they weren’t going to leave.

“At first, it was, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Tilley said “And then there was some real anger.”

After several hours had passed, Bush, not realizing there was a film crew in the open area of the governor’s office, angrily told press spokesman Justin Sayfie to “kick their asses out.”

That lightning bolt shot across state television screens that night. Sayfie says Bush was talking only about the reporters, but that wasn’t at all clear that night, and the governor’s do-it-my-way tactics had backfired.

Thousands march on the Florida statehouse in Tallahassee in March 2000, protesting Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to end affirmative action in the state. (Phil Coale/AP)

“A public relations debacle,” said the St. Petersburg Times.

The next day, after reporters and legislators had slept in the small office, Bush called the sit-in “sophomoric” but agreed to postpone the impending Board of Regents vote to set up public meetings in Tampa, Miami and Tallahassee.

“I’m asking for a critique of our plan,” Bush told reporters, “and suggestions for how to make it better.”

That evening, answering an email from a supporter, he wrote, “My main objective is to ensure that we end discriminatory practices like set asides and quotas and race-based admissions criteria while we actively embrace diversity all the while.”

To reporters, he was more blunt: “The two most miserable days of my life.”

Floridians, mostly black and mostly furious, came out in droves to the hearings. In Tampa the hearing went for seven hours, and dozens of people who signed up to speak were still left waiting. When Bush showed up at the Miami hearing, he was lambasted for three hours.

He met privately for an hour with a group of influential black pastors, then with students from Florida A&M. Few, if any, were swayed.

“I knew there was a high-risk nature to this,” he told then-Miami Herald reporter Steve Bousquet, “but this is the right thing to do, and I have been elected, I think, to do what I think is right.” In March, when he delivered his State of the State address to the legislature, the governor who wanted to avoid “divisiveness” arrived to see that he had set off one of the largest protests in Florida history — more than 10,000 Floridians, most of them black, rallying against him.

“No more Bush!” they chanted.

“Jeb Crow,” read signs.

Inside, Bush spoke for half an hour. He never mentioned the protesters. But he told legislators that “the vast majority of Floridians favor the elimination of all affirmative-action programs.”

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks to children at the Founders Academy in Manchester, N.H., in early November. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

Winners and losers

Bush may not have united Florida behind him, but he never wavered.

“He’ll make his decision, stick his face in there and stick with what he thinks is right,” Stipanovich says.

And he won. The Board of Regents approved One Florida. The legislature approved the scholarships. Connerly’s proposed referendum got stuck in the courts and was eventually dropped.

The November 2000 presidential election, one of the most disputed in American history, was ultimately settled in Florida. George W. Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes among nearly 6 million cast in the state.

Sixteen years later, One Florida has had mixed results for the state’s minorities.

African Americans were about 18­ percent of the freshman class at all state universities and colleges before the program, roughly in line with their percentage of the overall population. Today, African Americans account for 21 percent of the state’s population, but just 13 percent of the state’s freshman collegiate class.

Those classifying themselves as Hispanic accounted for 15 percent of the population in 2000. Now, after population growth and a change in census-counting metrics, they make up 28 percent of the state’s residents. The percentage of Hispanic college freshmen has rocketed from about 11 percent in 2000, at the time of One Florida, to 27 percent.

The minority-business program tripled the percentage of state contracts to minorities during Bush’s first term, but since he left office, figures have receded to pre-Bush levels, reports show.

Today, the bold move to act via executive order is not something Bush finds admirable in the current occupant of the White House.

At that same CPAC event where he touted using an executive order to end affirmative action, he blasted Obama for “using his executive power to try to carry out his agenda.” When announcing his campaign, he said he would pass “meaningful immigration reform. . . . Not by executive order.”

Still, Bush retains the belief that as the chief elected executive, the shots are his to call. At a summer campaign stop in New Hampshire, Bush echoed a phrase his brother made famous about the role of the president.

“A president is a decider,” he told his audience. “A president leads by making decisions — many of them are tough.” And he promised: He won’t flinch.

Bush formally kicks off his White House run in June at Miami Dade College's Kendall Campus in Miami. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

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