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Policy group proved shrewd for Bush

The Foundation for Florida's Future kept Jeb Bush in the spotlight but its contributors don't have to be revealed.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 13, 1998


Carl Bouckaert doesn't live or work in Florida, but the carpet mogul from north Georgia apparently cares a lot about the state.

He and his company donated at least $10,000 to the Foundation for Florida's Future, a non-profit public policy organization. Of course, Bouckaert's interest was more politics than policy and can be summed up in two words:

Jeb Bush.

"Carl always has been interested in the political system and became a very big fan of President Bush," says Bruce Bowers, the general counsel for Bouckaert's carpet
How the story was reported

There is no legal requirement for the Foundation for Florida's Future to name its contributors, their occupations and locations, or how much they gave. The foundation listed only the names of its contributors in its annual reports. To identify them, Times political editor Tim Nickens and researcher Kitty Bennett examined 98 names listed in the foundation's 1996 annual report who each gave at least $5,000 that year. They conducted dozens of interviews and relied on thousands of pages of public documents, including campaign contribution reports, corporate records and property records.

company. "He became friends with President Bush and his sons by extension."

 

When Jeb Bush created the foundation in the days after his defeat in the 1994 governor's race, he needed plenty of money. So he turned to people like Bouckaert, who keeps a picture of himself on Air Force One in his office.

Bush insists he had no plans for a second run for governor when he set up the foundation. But it proved to be extraordinarily shrewd: The high-profile think tank doubled as a powerful political machine unique in Florida.

Running the foundation allowed Bush to keep his public profile high, shape legislation in Tallahassee and cultivate a vibrant state and national network of financial backers focused on helping the Republican make a comeback after his razor-thin loss to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

With that enormous head start, Bush had no primary opposition and is the clear favorite over Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay with the gubernatorial election less than two months away.

"I think it was pretty effective if you look at the polls," says Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries of Florida, the state's most influential business lobby. "His name identification is up, and his political image has changed considerably. It had the effect of showing he is not one of those far-right Republicans."

But the story of Bush's foundation is more than a tale of getting the jump on his opponent. It is a story of reshaping the political landscape between elections, and of quietly financing that effort with little or no public disclosure.

Consider:

Bush raised more than $1.7-million in 1995 and 1996, yet because the foundation is technically not "political" he is not required by law to disclose who contributed what.

In the early months of the foundation Bush refused to voluntarily reveal who was giving money to it. He eventually published in the foundation's annual reports lists of contributors who were grouped in broad categories, with the highest category including those who gave at least $5,000.

But citing privacy concerns, Bush did not list the donors' occupations or hometowns and refuses to be specific about who gave what. Internal Revenue Service records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times indicate one 1995 contribution was for $70,000; another 1996 contribution was for $50,000. Bush says he can't remember who wrote those checks, although he says: "I could probably find out."

Bush emphasizes that most of the foundation contributors gave small amounts of money. But 69 percent of the donations in 1995 and 1996 came from the contributors who gave at least $5,000.

Those contributors who gave at least $5,000 to the foundation combined to give more than $119,000 to Bush's 1998 campaign for governor.

Since January 1997, the same group has given more than $1.7-million to the Florida Republican Party. The state GOP is subsidizing Bush's campaign and buying his television ads.

Using Bush's list, campaign contribution reports and other public records, the St. Petersburg Times identified most of the major contributors to the foundation. They include many of the state's largest companies and interest groups. The list also includes a who's who of state and national Republican Party benefactors.

The checks flowed in from sugar companies such as U.S. Sugar and Flo-Sun. Chris Sullivan and his Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse chain. Republic Industries' Wayne Huizenga. Shebel's Associated Industries. JM Family Enterprises, the parent company of the nation's largest Toyota distributor. Philip Morris. Eckerd Corp. BellSouth.

Nearly all of them have an interest in the laws and public policies set by the Florida Legislature and the governor.

The foundation also attracted those who share Bush's background in development and real estate. They include Al Hoffman, a Florida developer who is now the general finance chairman for Bush's campaign, and Tarmac America, the country's largest producer of ready-mix concrete.

While Bush says he opposes any expansion of gambling, Miccosukee Indian Bingo & Gaming sent checks to the foundation. So did Guy Snowden of Boca Raton, the former chairman of GTECH, which manufacturers video lottery games.

Big Republican donors to the foundation include George and Barbara Bush, Bouckaert, the Georgia carpetmaker whose elegant pile graces the Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, and Jacksonville insurance executive Thomas Petway III, who recently gave the Florida Republican Party $100,000.

When Bush left the foundation in May 1997 to launch his second campaign for governor, he cited the organization's achievements as among his proudest. And when he left, many of the foundation's largest contributors followed, channeling their giving to the state GOP or Bush's campaign.

Bush says the foundation was not a shadow campaign for governor.

"I could have just hung out, gone to the occasional Republican function, and I would have been in the same exact position when I started my campaign," he says. "The majority of time, I had no intentions of running for governor."

* * *

The day after Bush lost the closest governor's race in Florida history, a sunny Wednesday in early November 1994, he was driving home along busy U.S. 1 in Miami when he saw Chiles standing on the side of the road waving thanks to the voters. Bush hopped out of his car, quickly shook hands with the winner and drove away to contemplate his future.

While he did not know whether he would seek public office again, Bush wanted to keep his supporters together and enthusiastic. For help, he turned to a political animal instead of a policy wonk.

Sally Harrell had just guided his campaign to within a hair of defeating a political legend. The 29-year-old Mississippi native was in demand, fielding offers to lobby and overtures from the budding Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander presidential campaigns.

Bush made his pitch to keep the team together. In telephone calls and in meetings in Tallahassee, he and Harrell talked of forming a public policy group. By Christmas, their private musings were public.

"It was my idea to take the enthusiasm and the passion for my candidacy, which I believed was based on some ideas that I consistently advocated, and stay involved in the political process to allow their voices to be heard and those ideas to be heard," Bush recalls.

They kicked around names for their new organization, searching for a Florida historical figure. Bush particularly liked Ponce de Leon, but it didn't click.

On Jan. 3, the day Bush had expected to become Florida's 42nd governor, hundreds gathered outside the Old Capitol in Tallahassee to see Chiles sworn in for a second term.

A day later, with the wooden inaugural stage still standing, corporate papers quietly were filed with the state to establish the non-profit Foundation for Florida's Future.

Bush, the once and future Republican candidate for governor, would be the foundation's chairman. Harrell, his once and future campaign manager, would be its executive director.

Just 57 days had passed since the 1994 election.

* * *

In building the foundation, Bush and Harrell carefully painted a facade of non-partisan, grass-roots support. The board of directors included three conservative Democratic legislators. The organization also published articles by Democrats such as Jim Towey, the former social services chief and close friend of Chiles; Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer whom Chiles appointed to the Board of Regents; and state Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven, who now campaigns against Bush as MacKay's running mate.

But the foundation's pillars were all Bush.

Its board of directors included former national Republican Party co-chair Jeanie Austin; Jim Smith, the former state Cabinet member; and Betty Sembler, the wife of St. Petersburg-area developer and longtime George Bush supporter Mel Sembler.

Among the other Republican fund-raisers, legislators and business associates, there was even room on the board for Wendy Nelson of Tarpon Springs.

In Bush's most controversial 1994 campaign ad, Nelson blamed Chiles for failing to sign a death warrant for the killer of her 10-year-old daughter. Bush later acknowledged there was nothing Chiles could have done to speed the process, but the ad backfired and cost him votes.

"I thought a conservative think tank could offer some new insight into the state's problems," says Nelson, who has given at least $6,000 to the foundation, $500 to the '98 Bush campaign and $1,000 to the Florida Republican Party.

The foundation named Republican Jack Kemp as its honorary chairman. It hired the polling firm Bush uses in his gubernatorial campaigns, Public Opinion Strategies of Washington, and his campaigns' direct-mail firm, James Foster and Associates of Dallas. Although Bush took no salary from the foundation, three of his campaign staff members worked there between the 1994 and 1998 campaigns.

By the spring of 1995, the foundation was solidly in place. Offices opened in a 2,000 square-foot suite in a two-story Coral Gables office building. Harrell commuted three days a week between Tallahassee and South Florida.

The IRS also approved the foundation's status as a non-profit social welfare organization. Unlike political campaigns, there is no limit on the donations such organizations can accept and no requirement to disclose the donors.

Yet the "social welfare" designation also allows more aggressive lobbying and political activities than other non-profits. The only catch is the donations are not tax deductible.

That didn't seem to bother anybody.

In the coming months, Bush would turn to family, friends and political supporters for cash.

"You stood by me when I needed you most," Bush reminded supporters in one 1995 fund-raising letter on his personal stationery. "For that, I will always be grateful to you. But now, we must look to the future."

He kicked in at least $5,000 himself in 1995. His parents gave at least $10,000 in 1995-96.

Other less prominent supporters from the 1994 political campaign also gave.

Dr. Jeane Ann McCarthy, a neonatologist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, first met Bush when he toured the hospital as a candidate in 1994. She found the foundation concept intriguing, agreed to serve on its board of directors and contributed at least $10,000 in 1995-96.

Since then, she has given $500 to Bush's campaign for governor.

"I still see the same person who is very concerned and very interested and learning as much as he can and listening," McCarthy says.

An August 1995 fund-raiser featuring Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack held at Sergio Pino's home in Coral Gables raised about $50,000. Pino, a prominent developer, gave more than $15,000 to the foundation in 1995-96 and served on its board.

"I asked him to let me be involved," says Pino, whose family and businesses have given $10,500 to Bush's campaign and $30,300 to the state GOP. "The foundation did good things. All you have to do is look at the good things."

* * *

The Foundation for Florida's Future looked impressive by the end of that first year. It released four monthly newsletters, two issues of a slick quarterly magazine and five issues of a public policy series that included reports on teacher tenure and private scholarships for low-income families.

"I really believe it was set up to shape and influence public policy in Florida," says Towey, a Democrat and the former head of the state's social services agency. "Did Jeb benefit politically from it? Sure he did. Was that why it was set up? I don't think so."

The foundation also released its first major research project in October 1995: a survey of black Floridians on issues such as education, welfare, crime and economic opportunities.

Bush's pollster did the research and found strong support for affirmative action and for tuition vouchers among black families with school-age children.

The findings set off widespread dialogue over whether both political parties were failing to understand the interests of African-American voters. It also well-positioned future candidate Bush to make the most concerted effort to court black voters that a Florida Republican has attempted.

Bush supports vouchers, public money that could pay for tuition at private schools, for students at underperforming public schools. On the campaign trail now his response to questions from black voters about affirmative action echoes the conclusions of the foundation's report: an admission that white conservatives have failed to reach out to blacks, support for civil rights and a call for more sensitivity.

* * *

On at least one occasion, the foundation's fund raising and its policy recommendations intersected.

Associated Industries Insurance Service, an arm of the state's most powerful business lobby, gave $10,000 to Bush's foundation in 1995-96. In July 1996, Bush held a news conference to propose a one-year, 25 percent cut in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.

Associated Industries helped write and promote the plan.

"We assisted in drafting it," says Shebel, head of Associated Industries, "but it was Jeb's idea."

Acknowledging Bush's political influence, Chiles responded the same day by releasing similar plans. The Legislature approved a version of the proposal in 1997, creating a one-time tax break of more than $150-million.

The unemployment tax debate illustrates how Bush could simultaneously run the foundation and serve as the de facto leader of the Republican Party in Florida.

T. Willard Fair, the head of the Urban League in Miami, offers another example. An outspoken black civil rights activist and former Democrat turned independent, Fair credits the foundation with helping create one of the state's most successful experiments with charter schools.

"I would have no charter school without the foundation and Bush," Fair says.

The school is the foundation's crowning achievement. Co-founded with the Urban League, it opened in August 1996 with 60 kindergarteners and first- and second-graders from the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. As a "charter school" it is run privately but receives public money.

Now it has 180 children from kindergarten through fourth grade. The school has garnered Bush plenty of positive ink, and he now mentions it in campaign ads.

Most of all, it energizes his supporters.

"I am a firm believer in outreach to minorities and the belief that inner cities through self-help need to turn around, that we cannot ignore them," says David Simmons, an Orlando lawyer who gave to the foundation and the Bush campaign. "He has put himself full bore into that goal, and there is no better goal than that."

* * *

Although Harrell recalls a meeting in early 1997 where Bush told her he might not make a second run for governor, Bush resigned from the foundation in May and formally announced his candidacy in September.

With him, it appears, went many of the larger donors.

The list of contributors who gave at least $5,000 to the foundation plummeted from 98 in 1996 to 41 last year. Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney succeeded Bush as foundation chairman, and the headquarters moved to his city.

The foundation's 1997 tax returns have not been filed, so its full financial picture is unclear. This year, the foundation is down to two full-time employees and an annual budget of under $500,000. It has reduced its public programs and is struggling to publish its quarterly magazine.

The number of $5,000 contributions to the foundation in 1998: four.

"We're trying to downsize as far as finances go," says Susan Pelter, the executive director.

Bush's critics say the drop-off suggests the foundation was nothing more than a sophisticated political machine. Otherwise, they say, Bush would be more forthcoming about who gave what to the foundation.

"This financed his campaign for three years," Lt. Gov. MacKay says. "Maybe there are some strings attached. Maybe he made some commitments."

Bush vigorously denies such charges.

"You assume that whoever gives money to someone gets in the front of the line," Bush says. "I think that's the general feeling in politics, that whoever the mysterious $70,000 donor is all of a sudden has some kind of special relationship that would sway my views. . . . I have a set of guiding principles in my life that will shape my decisions as a leader, not who gave me money."

James R. Harper of Belleair illustrates how the lines blur between Jeb Bush businessman, Jeb Bush foundation leader and Jeb Bush future candidate for governor.

Harper had been associated more with community activities than politics, heading the Morton Plant-Mease Hospital foundation and the foundation that operates Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. As a Democrat he voted for Bush four years ago. Then his friends persuaded him to expand his political focus.

Harper says he knew Thomas Petway III of Jacksonville, the Bush business associate and political supporter. Petway introduced Harper to the foundation and to Jim Malone, the former president of Anchor Glass in Tampa. While Malone headed Anchor Glass, the company gave $15,000 to the foundation.

Those connections led Harper's company, a commercial insurance brokerage in Clearwater named Acordia, to give $10,000 to the foundation in 1995-96.

"We have a big belief in what he is doing," Harper says of Bush.

Harper says he switched his party registration to Republican two years ago. While he did not give money to the foundation in 1997, he says Al Hoffman, one of his company's clients and a personal friend, persuaded him to become more active politically.

In June, Harper sent the state GOP $25,000.

Tom Slade, the Florida Republican Party chairman, says it's not surprising many of the foundation contributors also are Bush's political supporters. The true measure of the Foundation of Florida's Future, he says, is its multiple accomplishments.

"Did Jeb benefit from it? Sure he did," Slade concludes. "Did the state of Florida benefit? You bet your life it did."

 

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