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He Was Born Republican Royalty, But 'Jebcito' Is From Miami


From anemic polling numbers to personal attacks, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush hasn't had an easy time of it. But the former governor can usually be assured of a warm welcome when he goes home to Florida. That's where he started out his day in Miami with a breakfast meet-and-greet at Chico's Restaurant. Many who came were longtime supporters. And talking to the crowd, Jeb Bush relied on his recent strategy of trying to draw contrast with the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump. There was no shortage of applause.


JEB BUSH: We will not win - we will not win by trying to tear people down. We will not win by disparaging people. We will not win trying to prey on people's angst and fears. We will win when we believe that everybody should have the right to rise up, that everybody has a God-given ability, that all of us together will make it impossible to restore the greatness of this country.


CORNISH: Bush thanked his supporters, saying that Miami's always been kind to the Bush family; this is our home. He also thanked the crowd in Spanish.


BUSH: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: In this encore airing of our series Journey Home, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson looks at how Jeb Bush embraced Hispanic culture and put down roots in South Florida.


MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There are three Republican candidates who ran Spanish-language ads when they announced their presidential intentions, but only one was an Anglo.


BUSH: (Speaking Spanish).

LIASSON: That's Jeb Bush, who doesn't just speak fluent Spanish. He has completely embraced Latino culture. His former aide Ana Navarro tells a little story that shows how. One day, she suggested something to Bush that he rejected because it was too expensive, and then, she said, he touched his elbow with his hand.

ANA NAVARRO: That's a very Hispanic gesture for meaning because I'm cheap, because I'm frugal. It means, I walk with my elbows so as not to wear out my shoes. In Spanish, it would say Yo camino con los codos, and it's that kind of little nuance that he fully understands.

LIASSON: To understand why Bush only half-jokingly adopted the Twitter hashtag #HonoraryLatino, you have to understand the path he took to his current home in South Florida. Bush grew up in Midland, Texas. He summered in Maine. He went to prep school at Andover, and it was in high school that his path home really began. He met his wife, Columba, on a high school exchange trip to Mexico. In college, he majored in Latin American studies. Bush converted to Catholicism. He worked briefly in Venezuela, but the place he chose to put down roots was Miami.

TOM FIEDLER: It certainly did shape him. The story of Miami, well, since the Cuban exiles began coming, has been one of being the new immigrant city.

LIASSON: That's Tom Fiedler, the former political editor of the Miami Herald. Jeb Bush first came to Florida to organize the state for his father's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. Then he and Columba decided to stay. Jeb went into business, real estate, and the family business, party politics. At the same time, the Mariel boatlift was bringing thousands of new Cuban immigrants to Florida. As Fiedler remembers, the leaders of the Cuban community in Miami decided they needed to become active in U.S. politics, and the Republican Party was their natural home.

FIEDLER: Because of the passion for President Reagan, they flocked to the Republican Party, and Jeb was there to take advantage of that.

LIASSON: By then, Bush had three children. His father, George H. W. Bush, once referred to them as the little brown ones. The young family settled into their new home near Miami, and, in 1983, Bush became the chairman of the Dade County Republican Party. At that time, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Dade by 3 to 2. Bush set out to change that, and he started with the Cubans.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

LIASSON: Radio Mambi's offices are in Coral Gables, where the Bush's now live.

NINOSKA PEREZ: I first met Jeb Bush very early on when he came to Miami.

LIASSON: That's Radio Mambi host Ninoska Perez. She's interviewed Bush on her show many times and watched as he became deeply connected to the Cuban community.

PEREZ: The problems of the Cuban community were, like, part of his own problems in the sense that if we were protesting for something, he was there.

LIASSON: By the mid-80s, newspaper profiles in Miami referred to Bush as one of the most prominent members of the Hispanic community. Perez isn't surprised that Bush once mistakenly listed his own ethnicity as Hispanic on a Florida voter registration form.

PEREZ: Probably, in his mind, he's thinking, yes, I am. You know, it's something like - that's how he was perceived. A lot of people were calling him Jebcito, like someone that was dear to them.

LIASSON: Just a mile away from Radio Mambi's offices in Coral Gables is Talavera, an upscale Mexican restaurant where Bush and his family like to eat. That's where I meet Marina de la Milera. She was on the executive committee of the Dade County Republican Party when Jeb was the chairman.

MARINA DE LA MILERA: He had a plan. He had a plan for the party, and he carried it.

LIASSON: Back when de la Milera met him, Jeb Bush was Republican royalty, the son of the man who rode on Air Force Two. But what impressed her most about Bush was his drive and work ethic. Bush has said his father saw politics as public service, but he sees it as a mission, like a religion. And Milera remembers that Bush's goal as the Dade County GOP chair was to register every newly naturalized Hispanic as a Republican.

DE LA MILERA: There, we did, in one year, 54,000 applications. We filled out 54,000 applications for citizens.

LIASSON: As Bush and his family found their place in South Florida with its vibrant stew of Latin-American immigrants, Bush was finding his own political home and building a vehicle for his political ambitions. It paid off. Bush won the Hispanic vote twice in his races for governor. He once called himself the first Latino governor of the state of Florida. Al Cardenas, who was state GOP chair in the '80s, said Bush's connection to the Hispanic community would be one of his biggest assets if he survives the primary.

AL CARDENAS: In our party, no one else seems to give the community the timeshare in their schedule that Democrats do, for example. And so here comes Jeb Bush. When you see his schedule, his schedule is representative of the Hispanic community's role in our country. That should be the rule, except that our party's been slow to learn it.

LIASSON: Bush's campaign has not gone the way he'd hoped. Republican voters have turned sharply against Bush's pedigree, and there's been a backlash against immigrants and immigration in the GOP. Bush has gone from frontrunner to single digits in just six months, but he has never wavered from his identification with the culture he adopted.


BUSH: I live in Miami. Trust me; I know the power of the immigrant experience because I live it each and every day. I know the immigrant experience because I married a beautiful girl from Mexico. My children are bicultural and bilinguals.


LIASSON: Bush even manages to get in a reference to his hometown in South Florida when he campaigned in New Hampshire and answered a question about country of origin labeling for food imports.


BUSH: When I go to Publix in Coral Gables, which I'll do tomorrow morning after church to go prepare for Sunday fun day in my house, I'll probably make a really good guacamole, and I want to know where that avocado's from, and I want to know where the onions are from and the cilantro and all the secret stuff I put in it.

LIASSON: So John Ellis Bush, son and brother of U.S. presidents, grandson of Connecticut senator Prescott Bush, can make a mean guacamole if he does say so himself. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.