MAXWELL:  Bush and the black activist

10/26/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During Florida’s 1994 gubernatorial race, John Ellis “Jeb” Bush lost to incumbent Lawton Chiles in the closest contest in state history. Bush, son of former U.S. President George Bush, did not, however, retreat from the political scene.

Mere days after the election, Bush, a wealthy patrician with deep conservative roots, ventured into black Miami to pay an unusual visit to an unusual man. He called on T. Willard Fair, a political independent and the 58-year-old president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Miami, a post he has held for the past 34 years.

Bush, who had been labeled “mean-spirited” during the campaign, said that he wanted to know more about the Urban League and its black clientele.

Neither he nor Fair _ a pioneering social worker and the eighth child of North Carolina black tobacco workers _ had any way of knowing that this single encounter would significantly change their lives and initiate a powerful transracial alliance not seen in Florida politics in recent memory.

In fact, when Bush officially announces his run for governor next month, Fair will be a highly visible member of the campaign, donating his 300-plus days of vacation time to the effort.

Fair, whose office is in riot-torn Liberty City, one of the poorest communities in the nation, acknowledges that he was skeptical of Bush’s first visit, saying then that he “didn’t have time to mess with Jeb Bush.” But they spent three hours that first day discussing many issues, including values, the family, crime, welfare reform and education.

“The longer we talked, the more we began to sound like twins on certain issues, especially on education,” Fair said. “Education is so important to us that we decided to work together and establish Florida’s first charter school. And you know the rest of that story.”

Still, why would Fair, a black civil rights activist, who had been a loyal Democrat until recently, campaign for Bush, a white Republican?

During a recent interview at his home, Fair explained: “Jeb Bush has proven himself to be decent, caring, compassionate and committed to the things that are important. He respects people for who they are and not for who they ought to be. I’ve grown to know and love him. It is absolutely fantastic, the things he’s done with me and for the children of Liberty City. I must tell others in the state that this man will make a good governor.”

Fair said that black Floridians, mostly all yellow dog Democrats, must develop new, viable political relations based in reality, not on tradition and sentimentality.

“First of all, skin color has nothing to do with it,” he said. “Blacks always voted Democratic because we were caught between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We can look back and find some Democrats who certainly did not serve our best interests. But because we had no other real choice, we picked the lesser of two evils. We have an obligation to look beyond party, to look to the future.

“If you look at the platforms, issues and solutions articulated today, sometimes you don’t know whether you are listening to a Republican or a Democrat. We must demand something different from ourselves, as well as from others. If we expect others to change, we ought to be willing to take the risk of change also. There’s a future for blacks in Florida’s Republican Party _ whenever we decide that that’s what they want. I have not heard anybody say they didn’t want blacks in the party. In fact, I hear just the opposite.”

Fair bristles at the suggestion, which comes from many circles, that Bush is cynically using him and the Liberty City Charter School for political gain. If anything, Fair said, he and Bush are using each other, as is the way of politics.

“Let me tell everybody up front that my relationship with Jeb is quid pro quo, and it survives on mutuality of admiration and respect,” he said. “Jeb strengthens my hand for the purpose of education reform for the kids in Liberty City, and I strengthen his hand for the purpose of becoming governor. Yes, Jeb wants the black vote. And I, T. Willard Fair, wanted and got his charter school.

“Implementing charter schools rests on one’s ability to raise money. It was genius on my part to select the biggest Republican in the state who would carry weight when we go to Tallahassee to lobby for the charter school bill, who can pick up the phone and, with the smoothness of his voice, raise money. It is genius on Jeb’s part to identify with the biggest, blackest, most militant black guy in the state. I call our relationship smart politics. Others can call it what they want.”

Clearly, like fellow Republican Bob Martinez did in 1986, Bush can become governor without the black vote. “But Jeb would not like to win without the black vote,” Fair said. “He wants to be the governor for all Floridians.”

And Fair is convinced that the new, gentler Bush, who now calls himself a “compassionate conservative,” is the genuine item. Without doubt, Fair said, the Liberty City Charter School experience _ interacting with the pupils and their parents _ has had a profound effect on Bush, opening his eyes to a side of African-American culture previously unknown to him.

Even though Fair immediately liked Bush at their first meeting, he remained somewhat skeptical. “In my own “colored’ way, I put him through every litmus test, and he has passed,” Fair said. “I know that he is for real, sincere.”

Of course, another big question lurks beneath this alliance of strange bedfellows: Is Fair seeking a post in a Jeb Bush administration? “I’ve got the best job of any black man in America,” Fair said. “I would be out of my mind to leave the Urban League of Greater Miami. I’ve got too much to do for the children of Liberty City.

“I have no aspirations to go to Tallahasee. Now, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go _ especially if I thought that I could contribute or if Jeb thinks that I am the best person for the job. My campaigning for Jeb is not about self-aggrandizement. It’s about doing what’s right for the greatest number of Floridians.”