Although Tom Kean has strong ties to the Bush family, he’s not about to endorse Jeb Bush for president – not this early, anyway.
The former New Jersey governor, 80, is perhaps best known nationally as the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, which was charged with providing the American people the fullest possible account of the facts and circumstances related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He was appointed to that commission by Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush. In addition, he also chaired George H.W. Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign.
And the family ties have transcended generations. His son, New Jersey state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., is friends with George P. Bush, who was elected land commissioner in Texas last fall.
“I think Jeb would be a very, very good president,” Kean acknowledged in a phone interview with Florida Politics last Friday, in advance of a commencement speech he’ll be giving at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg on May 17.
But Kean said with the stakes so high and the nation at a perilous moment in its history, he wants to take as much time as possible to hear all the candidates before backing one in 2016.
Kean served as governor of New Jersey from 1981-1989, before becoming the president of Drew University for 15 years. His record in office and overall demeanor has marked him as an increasing rarity in American politics, the Northeast Republican moderate.
Kean has had a well-noted back and forth relationship with Chris Christie, the current New Jersey governor who is now considered a long shot for the GOP nomination next year.
Major pension debt issues and the Bridgegate scandal may have doomed Christie’s presidential dreams, but Kean remains bullish on the current governor.
“I’ve known him for a long time and there’s one thing I’ve learned,” he says. “You never count Chris Christie out.”
“Now, he’s got a big hill to climb,” Kean admits. “And he’s got problems here in the state that are going to dog him as he travels around the country, but he’s a guy of tremendous ability. He’s good on his feet. And if it gets into a brawl, he’s the best brawler of the bunch.”
But those problems in New Jersey have already seemed to mute any mojo Christie had coming into this election cycle.
The Garden State beat out only Alaska and Mississippi with the third-worst job growth rate in the country in 2014. Under Christie, since 2010, New Jersey’s credit rating has been adjusted downward eight times by three different rating agencies. Public pensions have been cut, but the pension liability is still underfunded about $83 billion and one of the worst in the country.
Kean said those figures are daunting, but stresses that they began long before Christie was elected in 2009.
“By the time Chris Christie was elected there was a mountain of debt in the pension funds, and it’s taking a larger and larger amount of the budget,” he says. “So it’s becoming like PacMan. It’s taking school funds. It’s taking funds for the transportation. It’s taking funds from environmental protection now, and so he took a bite of the apple in his first time. “
Christie did try to get the problem under control in 2011 when a pension reform package designed to gradually increase the state’s pension contribution. But last year the New Jersey governor cut $2.4 billion in planned pension payments for the fiscal year when tax collections came up short. But nothing’s been done on that since then, which worries Kean.
“I mean, you’ve got to make some courageous decisions every now and then and you’ve got to put something together and you’ve got to solve the problem,” he says. “And we’re just letting it drift, and two to three years from now it’s going to be disastrous, so somebody’s gotta address it.”
Kean says the country is in desperate need of a great leader to right the ship in America. When asked if that was meant as an indictment of Barack Obama’s leadership, Kean said it was an indictment of Washington, D.C.
“I could give you five minutes on why it’s Barack Obama’s fault, and I could give you five minutes on why it’s the Congress’ fault, but it doesn’t matter much who you blame for it. The fact is Washington is not working.”
Kean said that while he’s just starting to learn more about Marco Rubio, he calls the 43-year-old Republican from Florida a “remarkable talent.”
“He’s obviously bright, he thinks through issues. I think he’s certainly if not the brightest, one of the brightest young Republicans on the horizon, and so I’m excited by him.”
Kean says he’s looking for a candidate with courage, the kind of candidate “who’s going to take on some of these groups who supposedly control primaries and say, ‘you’re wrong on that one.’”
Last December Bush told an audience that for a Republican to win the White House next year, that candidate “has to be much more uplifting, much more positive, much more willing to be, ‘lose the primary to win the general’ without violating your principles. It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you.”
When reminded of the quote, Tom Kean says, “That’s one of the things that attracts me to Jeb Bush. To make that statement, in other words to say, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, I’m going to tell you what I believe and the chips are going to fall where they may, but I’m not going to try to fool you.’ They try to fool people all the time, pretending to take a position to say ‘that’s what the voters wanted.’ I think people are so sick of that.”
So, no endorsement for Bush from Gov. Kean for now. But he’ll be watching (oh so closely) over the next year.
Thomas Kean gives the commencement address for the Class of 2015 at Eckerd College on Sunday, May 17, at 8 a.m. at the South Beach Field at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.