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Jeb Bush gets polite reaction at Urban League speech in Ft. Lauderdale

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While Jeb Bush’s address before the National Urban League‘s annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale on Friday was noteworthy if for other reason he was one of only two Republicans to address the venerable civil rights organization, it certainly brought to the fore the former Florida governor’s controversial record when it comes to the black community in his days in Tallahassee.

Bush used parts of his speech to emphasize his work in reforming education in Florida, particularly in introducing school vouchers.

“We created the first statewide private school choice programs in America. We expanded high-performing charter schools. And we ended social promotion in 3rd grade, the practice of just passing unprepared kids along as if we didn’t care – because we do care. And you don’t show that by counting out anyone’s child. You give them all a chance.”

Bush showed some rare humility when referring to his first run for office back in 1994, when he lost to Democrat Lawton Chiles for governor, saying, “After I lost my first election in 1994, I went through a period of what some might call ‘self-reflection’ but I referred to it as ‘listening and learning.’”

One of those mistakes that perhaps Bush reflected on was his comment on the campaign trail that year that he would do “probably nothing” for the black community if he were to be elected.

Bush received applause when he spoke about removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Florida State Capitol, saying he removed it in a museum, “where it belongs.”

He boasted how under his tenure he increased the number of black judges by 43 percent and how the state’s use of minority owned businesses tripled. “You can’t serve all the people unless you represent all the people. And we did. With the most diverse appointments this state ever saw. From my first day as governor until the last, respect was the rule, and opportunity for all was the goal.”

But unlike the three Democratic presidential candidates who spoke before him, Bush made no mention about the rash of high-profile deaths of blacks by law enforcement over the past year.

The closest he came was this quote:

“When President Obama says that, quote, ‘for too long we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present,’ he is speaking the truth. But we should be just as candid about our failures in addressing the injustices of a more recent origin.  In our cities, we’ve got so many people who have never known anything but poverty… so many young adults with no vision of a life beyond the life they know. It is a tragedy for them, and such a loss to our country, because every one of them has a God-given purpose to live out, and God-given talents that this world needs.”

He later segued into talking about the lack of a father in many black families.

“Too many kids are growing up without a dad.  Fathers who are absent in their child’s life – need to step up and take responsibility, and it is incumbent on us, to exert the positive societal pressures that can turn the tide in the breakdown of fatherhood in America.”

Democrats pounced on Bush’s record with African-Americans after the speech.

“You know what you didn’t hear Jeb Bush talk about today? You didn’t hear him tell folks that he signed into law the nation’s first Stand Your Ground measure,” said Michael Tyler, Director of African American Media for the Democratic National Committee.

“Jeb Bush  omitted the fact that he gutted opportunities for communities of color to access higher education,” Tyler continued. “He dodged the fact that he’s opposed and attacked classroom size reduction. He forgot to mention that he supports a budget that would slash Pell Grants and said he wants to ‘phase out’ Medicare. He certainly didn’t remind anybody that he’s called expanding Medicaid ‘wrong.’ “

But Hillary Clinton did in her speech about an hour and a half before Bush spoke. “I don’t think you can credibly say that everyone has a right to rise and then say you’re for phasing out Medicare or repealing Obamacare,” she declared to a huge cheer.

While he was taking selfies with the crowd immediately after his speech, a reporter shouted out to Bush if he had a response to Clinton’s comment. He said he hadn’t heard it.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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