He switched languages 27 minutes into his announcement speech. “Ayúdennos en tener una campaña que les da la bienvenida–Help us to have a campaign that welcomes you,” Jeb Bush said to a crowd of supporters Monday. “Work with us for the values we share and for a great future that is ours to build for our children.”
For a man who started learning Spanish as a teenager, married a Mexican woman, lived three years in Venezuela and was the governor of Florida for eight years, switching languages wasn’t that difficult … it was expected by the roughly 3,000 supporters, many of them Hispanics, who gathered at the Miami-Dade College’s Kendall campus to hear him say he’s running for president.
The 62-year-old Republican has been married for more than four decades to Columba, who was born and raised in Mexico. It all started when, as a teenager, he spent several months in her country of birth. At the age of 17, Jeb Bush taught English in a small village outside the Mexican city of Leon (Guanajuato state), Mexico as part of a student exchange program.
It was during the same trip that he met Columba Garnica de Gallo, the woman who would become his wife. They speak Spanish to one another and she speaks Spanish to their children at home. In 1996 he converted to her religion: Catholicism.
Speaking at the Universidad Metropolitana de Puerto Rico in late April, Bush said can relate to immigrants.
“Trust me,” he said. “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 bilingual.”
At a spring public event in Des Moines, Iowa; Jeb Bush, gave his listeners a glimpse into how he has embraced Hispanic culture.
The Republican presidential candidate was talking about labeling of imported produce, but his answer gave people attending the Iowa Agricultural Summit on March 7 a good idea about where he stands when it comes to food.
“When I go to Publix [supermarket] in Coral Gables, which I’ll do tomorrow morning, after church, to go prepare for a Sunday fun day in my house,” Bush said, “I’ll probably make a really good guacamole, and I want to know where that avocado is from. I want to know where the onions are from and the cilantro.”
In college, Bush earned a B.A. in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas. After college, he spent three years in Venezuela working for the Texas Commerce Bank, where he significantly improved his Spanish and gained knowledge of the culture. He’s lived in Florida since 1980, a state that has the third largest population of Hispanics in the United States after California and Texas.
While serving two terms as governor in the Sunshine State, Jeb Bush never had a problem communicating with voters and Hispanic media in Spanish, a skill that helped him connect with constituencies.
More recently, Jeb Bush recorded an ad in Spanish endorsing former Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) in his successful bid to the U.S. Senate.
More than 25 million Latinos are currently eligible to vote in the United States and their role will be crucial in the 2016 presidential election. For the 2012 presidential election, 17 percent of all Hispanic eligible voters lived in battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa and Nevada, according to the Pew Research Center. While Jeb’s brother George W. Bush had made inroads with Hispanic voters and cut into the Democratic advantage with them, Barack Obama drew them back toward Democrats. He won more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters in 2012. A winning Republican will likely have to bring more Hispanics back to the GOP.
Last month, Bush’s Political Action Committee Right to Rise published a YouTube video on the occasion of Fifth of May, a day in which Mexicans celebrate a victory over the French army.
“Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has become a day where we celebrate our ties with Mexico and the great contributions of the Mexican-American community in the U.S. In my case, this relationship is very profound. My wife Columba was born in Mexico, my family has always had strong ties with Mexico and I have great respect and affection for our neighboring country,” Bush said in the video.
In fact, Bush is the only non-Hispanic in the crowded field of GOP candidates aiming for the White House with a wide support among the Hispanic electorate.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a 44 year-old Floridian, was born in Miami to Cuban immigrants. He frequently takes advantage of his fluent command of Spanish while campaigning. Ted Cruz, another junior senator, was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father who raised him in Texas. He’s said in the past his Spanish is “lousy” and has alienated some Latino voters for his hard stance on immigration.
Rubio has previously supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. Bush has not. But he has shown a more moderate side than most other Republican candidates on how to approach the United States immigration problems. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Bush said he favors “a strategic approach,” meaning he would favor giving visas for highly-skilled foreigners.
He also called immigration a “gateway issue” and stopped short of criticizing fellow Republicans for calling for mass deportations and saying no to legislation to address the issue of what to do with the eleven million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
“If you keep being against things, particularly something that has… we have emotional connectivity as immigration is for a lot of emerging voting groups, you’re not going to even make your case,” Bush told Tapper.
But Matt A. Barreto, co-founder of polling and research firm Latino Decisions, and professor of political science and Chicano studies at UCLA, says it would be a mistake for Jeb Bush to take the Latino vote for granted.
“Latino voters have proven more than willing to reject even actual Latinos as candidates when their policy positions are in contrast to the community preferences. Bush’s marriage and linguistic skills, while symbolically important, would founder if his issue positions are in contrast to the average Latino voter,” Barreto said.
Barreto says, when you look at the record, Jeb Bush has been “all over the map” on the issue of immigration.
“When he was not a candidate he was much stronger on immigration reform. On his book he said that he would never support a path towards citizenship, which it’s a step too far. Later he came out on a Sunday morning show softening his position, but saying he doesn’t support amnesty. He’s going to have to clarify his position if he truly wants to attract the Latino vote,” Barreto said.
Bush didn’t intend to speak about immigration Monday, but he was forced by hecklers to briefly depart from his prepared remarks to address the issue.
“The next president will pass meaningful immigration reform so that will be resolved – not by executive order,” the former Florida governor said.
A description of Jeb Bush’s three children by his father as “the little brown ones” proved an embarrassment in 1988 when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was running for president.
Jeb’s His sons, have followed in their father’s footsteps and may prove invaluable to their father’s bid to the White House. Jeb Bush Junior, 31, has been called “ambassador to millennials,” helping his father raise fund for the GOP. His brother George P., 39, the eldest sibling, was elected Texas land commissioner and spoke at the Republican National Convention, introducing George W. Bush in 2000 .
In April, Bush turned around a potentially embarrassing incident with the help of his son Jeb. The New York Times had just unearthed a 2009 voter registration form on which he had listed his ethnicity as “Hispanic.”
“My mistake! Don’t think I’ve fooled anyone!” Bush tweeted the following morning.
He was responding to his son, Jeb Bush, Jr., who tweeted out a link to the New York Times post and said “LOL – come on dad, think you checked the wrong box #HonoraryLatino.”