Politics

Jebocracy

Jeb Bush's eight-year reign in Florida is almost over. Tallahassee may never be the same.
by | December 2006

When public officials praise figures from the political past, usually what they end up doing is describing idealized versions of themselves. You could say that was the case in October, when Jeb Bush gave a speech in Tallahassee honoring one of his predecessors as Florida governor, LeRoy Collins. Bush lauded Collins, who served during the 1950s, for standing up to segregationists and sparing Florida much of the racial strife that bedeviled other Southern states during the civil rights era. "He is our greatest governor," Bush said. At the capitol, Collins' portrait hangs in a place of honor outside the governor's reception room, at Bush's insistence.

There are some obvious differences between Bush and his historical hero. Collins was a fairly liberal Democrat, for one. As his biographer, Martin Dyckman, points out, "Collins warmly believed in the power of government." Nobody would say that about Bush, who spent his eight years in office shrinking state government's influence through privatization and deregulation. But what Bush admires in Collins is his fearlessness. "Courage like his is rooted in conviction and undeterred by critics--something that all governors can take to heart," Bush said in his speech, leading him to stray from his prepared remarks. "After you've been here a while, you really don't care too much about people who disagree with you, if they're consistent about it. Once you get that taken into consideration, standing on principle's a lot easier to do."

If Bush sees something of himself in LeRoy Collins' brand of intractability, his critics are apt to think of someone else: his brother. Comparing Governor Bush with President Bush can be a dubious exercise, but one similarity worth noting is that both have worked hard to consolidate power in the executive office. Jeb Bush has persuaded legislators and voters to give him more control over the institutions of government than any governor in Florida's history. And he has never shied from using his authority to reward friends and make his enemies sorry. Even a few Republicans around Tallahassee have described the governor's style as "dictatorial."

If Governor Bush has been perceived as a bully by some and a champion by many others, there's one statement nobody can argue with: Bush has been a transformative figure in both state and national politics. When his term ends on January 1, he will leave behind not only a radically new Florida reshaped in his own image but also a conservative template for state governance in America. From Florida's schools to its economy to the very apparatus of government, Bush has shaken up institutions, rolled over opposing forces and centralized power in service of the most ambitious agenda of any governor in his state's history.

Bush believes that government can't do everything, and that everything it does do would work better if attuned to market signals. To that end, he contracted out numerous government functions, from child welfare to state employee services, eliminating 14,000 civil service jobs along the way. Bush injected competition into public schooling via charter schools, private-school vouchers and a mandatory testing regime that predates the federal No Child Left Behind law. He also persuaded the legislature to pass tax cuts every year he was in office--$19 billion worth in all.

The governor not only embraced big ideas but he proved to be a tireless manager and implementer of his own policy visions. He was attentive to the smallest details and disarmed opponents with his knowledge of state programs and legislation. "While I aspire to be an unrelenting critic of his policies," says Dan Gelber, the incoming Florida House Democratic leader, "I think he's honest, very hard working and does have a deep grasp of the complexities of government and the intricacies of the policies he's attempting."

Bush hasn't gotten his way on everything. He suffered setbacks in many important areas, including his signature issue of education and his desire to turn over the management of Medicaid patients to private insurers. His privatization plans have been magnets for scandal and accusations of cronyism. But where most governors are lucky to impose their will in two or three major policy areas, Bush substantively changed Florida's approach to just about everything state government takes on--tax policy, budget policy, child welfare and a list that goes on and on. "You run down the litany of what Bush has accomplished, and you have to say by any standard he's been a successful governor," says Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida.

It's hard to argue with the numbers. Florida enjoys a healthy general fund surplus, a triple-A bond rating and an unemployment rate that's barely more than 3 percent--well below the national average. Florida, in fact, has consistently led the nation in job growth over the past couple of years, despite a string of devastating hurricanes. Bush leaves office with approval ratings in the high 60s. His Republican successor, the newly elected Charlie Crist, ran largely on a platform of defending his legacy for another term.

STRONG GOVERNOR

In short, Bush has dominated Tallahassee in a way that no governor had before him. Some of that was luck. At the same time Florida voters elected him in 1998, they also decided to shrink the state's cabinet and place more power directly in the governor's office. What's more, Bush has had a fairly pliant legislature to work with. Not only was he the first Republican governor matched with a Republican-controlled legislature since 1874, but a stringent new term-limits law kept both houses stocked with inexperienced lawmakers. "Without any question, he was the political leader," says Curt Kiser, a former legislator who now lobbies in Tallahassee. "Lots of legislators were frankly a little bit green about what the legislature's power or actions should be. They were willing to be led."

Bush also actively sought to consolidate executive power. Voters rejected his "seamless" K-20 education system, but he nonetheless ended up with greater control of higher education by winning the right to appoint each state university's board of trustees. Similarly, Bush persuaded the legislature to give him total control over judicial nominations--a power that the governor formerly shared with the state bar association. Critics complain that Bush made ideology a more important qualification for judges than it was in the past. But the Tampa Tribune editorialized last year, "The truth is that while Bush's selections naturally tend to be conservatives, they also have been, for the most part, highly qualified."

Bush's biggest power play was to assert himself into the appropriations process in unprecedented ways. Pork-barrel projects are called "turkeys" in Florida and, as in most states, they are a time- honored way for legislators to exercise some clout. But Bush robbed them of that benefit. While unveiling his first budget, he announced that he would veto any turkey that had not received a prior sign-off from his administration.

Bush was as good as his word, using his line-item veto authority to eliminate $350 million worth of projects that first year and more than $1.5 billion in total. Although legislators raised a fuss, they never tried to override him. "That is a legislature that has been emasculated," says Alan Rosenthal, an expert on state legislatures at Rutgers University. "That used to be a brawny legislature, really powerful and assertive. It's become a one-way street, with Bush calling all the shots."

The story of Alex Villalobos helps explain why. Villalobos was the Senate majority leader and in line to become Senate president when he dared to cross Bush on a pair of education votes. Villalobos was quickly stripped of his leadership post, but that, apparently, wasn't punishment enough. Bush recruited a candidate to run against Villalobos in this summer's GOP primary and helped raise a staggering $6 million for the campaign to unseat him.

Despite Bush's intervention, Villalobos managed to win the primary by a few hundred votes. Some see Villalobos' win as a possible turning point for legislative power; one hot rumor in Tallahassee is that Villalobos will stage a Senate leadership coup once Bush is gone. Whether or not that happens, it's likely that legislators will try to reassert some of their branch's authority. Marco Rubio, the incoming House speaker, has issued a broad "100 ideas" platform. Rubio has hired no fewer than 18 former Bush aides to help him try to implement it. Since most changes in the governor's power under Bush are institutional in nature, however, future inhabitants of the governor's mansion will continue to enjoy the advantage.

TESTING, TESTING

The results of Jeb Bush's governing philosophy and tactics are evident in every corner of Florida. But nowhere is Bush's imprint felt more strongly than in the schools. Bush implemented mandatory testing from grades 3 to 10. He pushed through legislation to make passing standardized tests a requirement, under certain circumstances, for third graders to advance to fourth grade and for seniors to graduate from high school. Florida also now requires local districts to tie a portion of teacher pay to student improvement on the achievement test.

All this testing has not been universally popular with parents or students. Jim Davis, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully to replace Bush, made his complaints a central issue on the campaign trail, contending that schools had become "dreary test-taking factories." But Bush found support for his ideas among many educators and in some of Florida's most troubled schools, such as the Ivey Lane Elementary School in Orlando. The school serves a public housing complex; all but a handful of its 400 students are poor and African American. Principal Ruth Baskerville subscribes to the idea, which Bush has promoted heavily, that standardized tests force districts to pay far more attention to students who have traditionally been neglected. "That which gets measured, gets done," she says. "It's human nature."

In 2005, Baskerville's school received a "double-F," the lowest grade possible under Bush's accountability system. Although she wasn't thrilled about it, the low score translated into extra help for Ivey Lane, including performance bonuses for teachers who raise student scores, priority for new textbooks and teachers and the introduction of math and reading coaches into the school. Most important, in Baskerville's view, Bush has created a mentoring program for schools like hers. With more than 70 volunteer mentors visiting individual kids once a week, discipline problems have declined and student scores have gone up. Ivey Lane earned itself a modest but certainly more respectable "C" for the most recent school year.

Ivey Lane's improvement was one small part of an important trend. Florida has narrowed the achievement gap between white and minority students more rapidly than any other state, save Texas. Nevertheless, the overall record of Florida's schools under Bush is mixed. Florida still scrapes the bottom of national statistics on both graduation rates and average SAT scores. Even Ruth Baskerville admits that success stories like Ivey Lane's are a matter of going from "really, really pitiful to just a little pitiful."

One surprising outcome of Bush's testing agenda is a rift with his brother over how to grade schools and what to do when they fail. Three-quarters of Florida schools receive an "A" or "B" under Governor Bush's testing regime, but more than 70 percent of them are rated as failures under President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Jeb Bush is especially passionate about devoting more resources to flunking schools such as Ivey Lane, which the federal system punishes by draining resources and encouraging students to transfer away. "With all due respect to the federal system," Governor Bush recently told the New York Times, "our accountability system is really the better way to go."

BEYOND MICKEY

Just a few miles east of the Ivey Lane school, you can see a very different piece of Jeb Bush's legacy taking shape. Across the street from Orlando's NBA arena, a musty ballroom with palm-tree-and-seashell carpet is about to be refurbished into part of a graduate-level academy for video-game programmers. Orlando has become a digital media hub, the East Coast home of Electronic Arts, the company that makes the "Madden NFL" video games, as well as JetBlue's flight simulation school and the Army and Navy's model simulation purchasers. Hoping to grow this digital industry further, Bush set aside funds to fix up the underutilized conference center to get the academy up and going and charged the University of Central Florida with the job of running it.

Florida's economy has long depended on the "three-legged stool" of agriculture, tourism and the military. Perhaps Bush's single greatest push, after education, was to diversify this narrow economic base. The governor takes a personal interest in deals of any size--he loves coming in for the close--and has led numerous trade missions, notably to Latin America, where his fluency in Spanish has been a real plus. Bush's biggest coup by far was to woo three San Diego-based biotech institutes--Scripps, Burnham and Torrey Pines--into opening Florida outposts for their research. Those mega deals will cost more than $1 billion in state and local subsidies--as much as $1 million per job created--but Bush argues they'll spur high-wage clusters of biotech business.

Orlando is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Bush's economic development efforts. A scrubby dirt lot off Highway 417 is set to become the Burnham Institute's East Coast headquarters, right next door to a new medical school for UCF and a VA hospital. Meanwhile, the video-game academy is being promoted as the anchor for a new "creative village" that will bring dozens of digital and software companies to downtown Orlando. "We want to create the kind of jobs that aren't just popping popcorn at Disney World or sweeping streets," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says. "We want the creative people, people who think for a living."

The video-game academy is the type of economic development project that Bush likes best, offering not just a boost for a single company but also the chance to encourage an entire industry to plant roots in Florida. Year-round sunshine is doubtless a major draw, but you wouldn't know it from hanging around the video-game academy, which already has taken over most of the old conference center across from the Orlando arena. Students seem to thrive on late hours and there's not a window within their ample workspaces--light would only interfere with the images on their screens. "The art in there is significant," says Krystel Guiloff, showing off the transparent stained-glass effects in a game she's been helping to create, which one of her fellow students calls "the greatest opera role-playing game in the world."

Guiloff can hardly contain her excitement about UCF's new video-game program. As an undergraduate, she expected to end up working on telecom software or something equally mundane, but she's thrilled to have the chance to work and network with notable figures in the video- game industry right in her home state. "The video-game industry is something I wanted to see grow in central Florida," she says.

She is just the sort of person Electronic Arts was hoping to recruit when it first proposed the creation of a video-game academy. The company's local studio has been growing rapidly, but it couldn't sustain its growth if it had to keep relying on California transplants. Electronic Arts executives met with local economic development and university officials, who joined with the company to deliver a pitch to Bush. The governor came through with $4 million for getting the academy started and $1 million a year to UCF for operating costs.

Mayor Dyer, who used to spar with the governor as leader of the Senate Democrats, has been around politics long enough to know that projects like this one have many fathers and mothers. But he concedes that Bush did the most to give life to Orlando's new digital and biotech dreams. "My Democratic friends don't like it when I say too many nice things about Governor Bush," Dyer says. "But I think the governor gets what you have to do to be competitive in this climate in attracting high-wage jobs. This is something that will transform the economy of central Florida for decades."

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