It was a typically chaotic afternoon in Judge Kathleen Kearney’s Broward County, Fla., courtroom, where she heard dozens of cases a day involving abused and neglected children in foster care.
One father — a tiny man — suddenly became agitated. He was speaking in Spanish, and Kearney could not understand him.
A visitor in the courtroom stepped in: “I think he needs to be someplace. He needs someone to translate for him.”
So on the spot, Kearney swore in the helpful stranger as an officer of the court. His name, it turned out, was Jeb Bush.
The frantic man was a jockey at a nearby horse track, and the court proceedings were running so late that he was likely to miss his next race. “He’s worried, because he’s afraid to lose his job. And if he loses his job, he can’t get his daughter back,” Bush explained.
Bush stayed for hours, until that and every other case had been dealt with. Then, Kearney recalled, Bush asked her: “Can we have lunch next week?”
That was late spring of 1997, a time in his life that Bush now refers to as “wandering around.”
But he was far from aimless.
In that period, Bush retooled himself and his image from that of a sometimes cartoonish ideologue into what he is today. Indeed, as he prepares to formally announce his bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the question being asked is whether he is strident enough.
Humbled by defeat the first time he ran for office, Bush spent the mid-1990s broadening and deepening his knowledge of how his state worked, forging relationships that softened his profile and striving to talk about what he believed in a way that would bring people together.
“I learned tone,” Bush said in an interview. “You can say the same thing that represents your core beliefs in a way that draws people toward your message, rather than pushes people away.
“And that’s a lesson in 2016,” he added. “To win, you’ve got to get to 50. To get to 50, you draw people toward your message, not use language that makes the dramatic point, which is effective in political discourse but turns some people away.”
Bush had run for governor in Florida three years before that day he showed up in Kearney’s courtroom.
It was a spectacularly good election season for Republicans across the country, and Bush had followed the 1994 playbook to the letter. He boasted of himself as a “head-banging conservative.” He talked of “blowing up” state agencies. Asked what he would do for African Americans, he answered: “Probably nothing.” Women on welfare, he said, “should be able to get their life together and find a husband.”
“You could argue he was one of the most conservative politicians in the country,” said Matthew T. Corrigan, who chairs the University of North Florida’s department of political science and wrote a book about Bush’s two terms as governor titled “Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.”
Corrigan added: “In some ways, he was the Ted Cruz of his time,” a reference to the firebrand senator from Texas who is also running for the GOP presidential nomination.
Bush fell barely short of winning against Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles, whom Republicans accused of dirty tactics at the end. That same night, his brother George W. Bush won an upset over a sitting governor in Texas and took the first step toward becoming the second Bush in the White House.
Jeb Bush was devastated.
“I put my heart and soul into it,” he recalled. “I thought I was going to win, and so did a lot of other people. It was kind of hard, because I’m normally pretty good at just moving on.”
Bush was not sure whether he would run again. But he did know one thing: If he did, he would go about it in a very different way.
“It just dawned on me at some point. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I just came to this awareness of myself that I didn’t show my heart,” Bush said.
“I lost not because he cheated. I lost because, when the attacks started, not enough people shrugged their shoulders and said: ‘That’s not true. I know this guy. He’s a good man,’ ” Bush said. “That was kind of the catalyst for the next few years of my life.”
He also began to realize how much he had to learn. He had to put the policies that he advocated in the context of human faces and personal stories — something that did not come naturally to him.
“Personally, I’m an introvert. I’m not, like, a gregarious guy, who needs the energy of a crowd to make me feel fulfilled. I’d rather read a 20-page policy brief,” he said. “So I just met a whole new group of people. We did a lot of interesting things.”
He scaled back his involvement in his real estate development business. He started a think tank — or, as he likes to call it, a “do tank” — called the Foundation for Florida’s Future.
And Bush made some changes in his private life. Most notably, he fulfilled a long-standing promise to his wife, Columba, to convert to Catholicism.
Shortly after the 1994 election, he began attending weekly religious instruction classes.
“I was hanging out with real people who couldn’t care less about politics. They were obviously people grounded in their faith because they were the sponsors for a really diverse group of people that were coming into the faith,” Bush said. “So that was meaningful as well.”
Bush acknowledged that there was maintenance work to do at home as well, though he said that reports that his marriage hit the rocks after the 1994 campaign were “a little over-exaggerated, in the sense that there weren’t deep strains or anything.”
“Just getting reconnected to make sure that I was being a good dad, being a good husband was important,” he said.
And he wandered around.
“There was no grand plan. He would hear about these people and say, ‘I want to go see them,’ ” said Sally Bradshaw, who was and remains his closest adviser. “He would just drive. He would get in his car and drive.”
Bush sent long memos to aides about what he had learned. Some of the people he met later played major roles in his gubernatorial administration.
Kearney, for instance, had been known as a fierce critic of the Florida Department of Children and Families; she was tapped to run it under Bush. (She resigned in 2002, after coming under fire in several cases in which children disappeared from the state’s foster-care system.)
In early 1995, Bush asked to meet Miami Urban League President T. Willard Fair, ostensibly because he wanted to donate some of his leftover campaign money to Fair’s programs to improve education. As the two talked, they discovered that they shared many of the same ideas about what was wrong with the school system and how to fix it.
“He said, ‘You know, why don’t we start a charter school?’ ” Fair recalled. “I said, ‘What’s a charter school?’ ”
He and Fair worked with the governor who had beaten Bush to pass a law establishing a charter-school system. In 1996, they set up the first one in Florida.
“Then it dawned on us: We didn’t have any children,” Fair said.
Fair gathered a group of mothers. It took some persuading to get them to enroll their children, given that none of them had ever heard of a charter school.
The meeting itself, the Urban League director noticed, was a new experience for Bush.
“This was the first time he had ever met with an all-black audience,” Fair recalled. “He was visibly uncomfortable.”
But over time, as Bush became a regular presence at the Liberty City Charter School, “he became as comfortable with my mothers and babies as I was,” Fair said. “By continuous association, like anything else.”
When he became governor, Bush ceased his direct involvement with the school, to avoid a conflict of interest; it shut down because of financial difficulties in 2008.
Chris Card, who was executive director of the nonprofit Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, met Bush during his failed 1994 campaign, through his friend Carl Weinrich, head of the Sarasota YMCA. They found they agreed that private, community-based groups should be empowered to provide child-welfare services.
But “the issue didn’t rise during that campaign at all that I could recall,” Card said. So he was surprised when Bush called Weinrich after the election and said, “This is too good an idea to let go of, just because I lost the election.” Bush helped them push the idea with Chiles, who supported it and got it through the legislature.
Bush was campaigning again for governor in the summer of 1998 when he met Berthy De La Rosa-Aponte, the mother of a disabled child in Broward County. She complained that there wasn’t enough support for parents like herself, who wanted to care for their children at home.
“I talked and talked,” she recalled. “Maybe 30 minutes into the thing, he asked me: ‘Will you take me around? I want to learn.’ ”
Bush often cited Aponte in his speeches and ultimately committed hundreds of millions in state money to the disabled — though cynics noted he was spurred in part by the fact that Florida was facing lawsuits over the issue.
Aponte insisted, however, that theirs was a connection, not a calculation on Bush’s part: “I’m Latina. He didn’t know if I’m a Democrat or a Republican. He didn’t know if I vote. He didn’t know if I’m a U.S. citizen.”
Bush’s 1998 Democratic opponent was a weaker one, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. He warned Floridians not to fall for Jeb 2.0.
“Voters need to know [Bush] is the same person he was in 1994,” MacKay said. “He’s presenting himself with a smile and a smoother image. But the people who are giving him money, putting muscle in that campaign, are the same ones as before. That’s a Christian Coalition conservative right. And they need to understand Jeb Bush hasn’t changed. People may be in for a real surprise.”
Bush won by more than 10 points. His victory signaled a sea change in Florida and the South because it gave Republicans control of both the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since Reconstruction.
What he had done in the years since that first loss changed everything, even though he maintained that his ideas were the same.
“Yeah, in 1994, I called for a statewide [school] voucher program. In 1998, I called for a statewide voucher program,” he said. “The difference was that I took the horns off. I’m sure I didn’t get every teachers-union-member vote, but they knew I was serious. They knew I had a heart for this. They knew I understood their challenges, their issues.
“So what I called then ‘wandering around’ probably was a pretty effective political tool,” he said. “But for me personally, it was really important. It added a lot of purpose and joy to the experience, which can be a little dreary. And I learned a lot.”
The question for Bush now is how much of his party wants him to take the horns off. Bush’s notion of getting to 50 percent of the vote indicates a focus on the general election, not the heated primary battle he’s engaged in. He has been received coolly by much of his party, in part because of a desire for a fresh face, but also because his moderate stances on issues such as immigration and education are out of stride with the views of many conservatives. It’s not soft tones they want but hard edges.
In retrospect, Bush allows that his 1994 loss might have been a good thing in some ways — for himself and maybe even for Florida.
“If I was elected in ’94, started out serving in ’95, I would have learned it,” he said. Then he laughed. “I think I would have learned it.
“But it would have been on the run,” he said. “When I showed up in January 1999, I had an agenda. I had a team. It was the most diverse team in Florida’s history. It was grounded.
“There was purpose to it.”