Jeb Bush’s controversial comments about “free stuff” and African Americans brought to mind one of the most turbulent episodes of his governorship: a battle over affirmative action.

Share story

In 1999, shortly after Jeb Bush’s election as governor of Florida, the leader of a national movement to overturn affirmative-action policies visited his Tallahassee office with a request: Would Bush support a ballot measure banishing such policies, which had become a favored conservative target?

The governor’s eyes wandered to an image on his wall, featuring several black children. He approached the photograph. “I’m not with you,” Bush said finally, according to the activist, Ward Connerly. “They are the ones I want to help.”

By the end of the year, black leaders across Florida disagreed with that self-assessment.

Bush unveiled an alternative plan, which itself took aim at racial preferences in public-university admissions and state contracting, setting off a controversy he said he had strained to avoid. Black legislators staged a sit-in at the governor’s executive suite. Thousands marched on the Capitol. And Bush’s inbox swelled with the pleas of students, asking why he was quashing their chance to attend college.

It was, allies say, neither the first nor the last time Bush’s good intentions had been misunderstood on a matter of race. The most recent example arrived last week, as Bush told a crowd in South Carolina that Republicans should not appeal to African Americans with promises of “free stuff.”

“Our message is one that is uplifting, that says you can achieve earned success,” he said then.

Opponents saw in the Sept. 24 comments brazen hypocrisy from a son of political royalty, the latest stumble for a candidate who has cast himself as a bridge to new voters, with experience leading a diverse state and a unique perspective among Republican presidential candidates as the bilingual husband of a woman born in Mexico.

Longtime supporters heard something else: an echo of one of the most turbulent episodes of his governorship.

Bush had not planned on a fight upon entering office, at least not on this count. Chastened by a narrow election loss in 1994 — he campaigned for governor as a tough-on-crime conservative who glibly predicted he would do “probably nothing” for blacks if elected — Bush had since moved to expand his outreach to new constituencies.

He co-founded a charter school serving predominantly black residents in Miami, pressed for diversity in appointments of agency heads and judges, and expressed remorse in a 1998 debate when asked about his relationship with black voters.

“Republicans have ignored the black vote in this state, and I was part of that, and it was a mistake,” he said.

As Bush took office, though, Connerly, who had helped spur a national movement to challenge affirmative-action policies on state ballots, eyed Florida as his next battleground.

Bush largely agreed with him, arguing against racial quotas. But he cast the prospect of a ballot measure as needlessly divisive. Some critics saw another motivation: The vote would have come in November 2000, and threatened to increase African-American turnout for an election in which his brother was on the ballot for president. Those close to Bush have disputed any connection.

Bush proposed a third way, calling the initiative “One Florida.” It banned racial preferences at universities and in state procurements, but required state campuses to guarantee a spot for all students who finished in the top 20 percent of their class. His brother George W. Bush, then the Texas governor, had endorsed a similar approach, backing a 1996 court decision that banned racial preferences at the University of Texas School of Law but called for an “affirmative-access” approach that assured admission for top graduates from Texas high schools.

In Tallahassee, Bush said the changes would increase enrollment figures for minority groups, a claim that, more than a decade later, remains contested. He also said he was ordering agencies to revamp procurement protocols to encourage greater diversity among vendors.

Few groups were pleased. Some black elected officials suggested Bush had not consulted them sufficiently. Conservatives had long questioned why he refused to back Connerly’s efforts in the first place.

“I am not wobbly,” Bush responded in a March 1999 email to one skeptic. “I oppose quotas and set-asides, and can assure you that they will not be used in state government.”

The debate consumed much of his first year in office, cresting perhaps in January 2000, two months after Bush had issued an executive order outlining his vision.

Two prominent black lawmakers arrived in Bush’s executive suite for a meeting with the lieutenant governor. Bush, who had resisted meeting the men himself, dropped in briefly to lament the futility of their push.

“If you think I’m going to change my mind, you might as well get some blankets,” he told the lawmakers, according to one of them, Anthony Hill, then a state representative.

“So we did that,” Hill recalled.

Soon, the governor’s office was overtaken by the spectacle. Protesters descended on the Capitol to support Hill and his state Senate colleague, Kendrick Meek, who did not budge for more than 24 hours. Reporters raced to the premises. And in a hot-mic moment that attracted national headlines, Bush ordered aides to “kick their asses out,” unaware that his words were being recorded. His team later insisted he was talking about the reporters.

Eventually, Bush relented, slightly. He agreed to meet the lawmakers and scheduled a series of public meetings on the changes to come.

But emotions simmered. The Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., who was Bush’s most outspoken black supporter, said at the time that he felt double-crossed: “Instead of One Florida, it’s divisive Florida.” (The enmity did not last; Holmes introduced Bush at his presidential campaign kickoff in June and has continued campaigning for him.)

Bush’s supporters have argued that the plan fulfilled its purpose, infusing admissions policies with conservative ideals while coaxing schools to find opportunities for underrepresented groups in other ways.

Bush’s team has pushed back since his tenure ended, noting that more students of all races had been enrolled, with particular gains among Hispanics as the state’s demographics shifted.

And according to the Bush campaign, businesses run by blacks and Hispanics received tens of millions of dollars more in state procurements by the time he left office.

In other political developments:

Leadership race: Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah plans to run for House speaker in a longshot challenge to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, three Republican aides said Friday. Chaffetz, 48, chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and has led high-profile hearings on the Secret Service, Planned Parenthood and other issues. His candidacy would offer an outlet for Republicans reluctant to coronate McCarthy of California to replace House Speaker John Boehner, who announced his resignation a week ago. Chaffetz’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he plans to appear on “Fox News Sunday” to “announce his decision to run for House speaker,” according to that network.

Carson’s take: Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson said the U.S. should bar refugees from war-torn Syria because they are “infiltrated” with Muslim extremists who seek to harm America. The comments come as Carson has taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward Muslims, and after rival Donald Trump pledged he would support deporting Syrian Muslims from the U.S. “To bring into this country groups infiltrated with jihadists makes no sense,” Carson told about 150 people at the Des Moines Rotary Club. “Why would you do something like that?”

Trump cancels: Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has pulled out of a planned question-and-answer session with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., next week because he was concerned about the questions he’d be asked, the group said Friday. Chamber spokesman Ammar Campa-Najjar said Trump was “unwilling to abide by the terms and conditions” of sessions that other candidates accepted. Trump told CNN he’d never agreed to the Thursday event and didn’t know about it. But he said on Geraldo Rivera’s radio show last month that he was planning a meeting with the group in October in Washington.

Firefighters union: The International Association of Fire Fighters, one of the country’s more politically powerful unions, has abandoned its initial plans to endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, according to union sources. Harold Schaitberger, the union’s general president, informed Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, in a telephone call Monday. According to a union official, Schaitberger told Mook the executive board and rank-and-file members — the latter were recently polled — did not support a Clinton endorsement.