On a recent evening, George P. Bush was telling a packed room of wealthy North Texans how he got his start in politics. It was May 1979 and the then 3-year-old was in a Houston park, clutching a balloon and watching his grandfather, George H.W. Bush, announce his first campaign for president.
“It was my first memory,” Bush recalled. “I was wearing a George P. Bush, er, uh, George H.W. Bush for President T-shirt.”
Drowned out temporarily by laughter, Bush insisted it wasn’t a Freudian flub. An aide approached a reporter scribbling notes and jokingly commanded: “Stop writing!”
The light moment underscores the dilemma of the latest scion of an American political dynasty.
How does Bush keep his family’s powerful past from overwhelming his present? How can he ease into his first campaign for elected office amid lofty expectations that he will help save a Republican Party in Texas that’s endangered by the state’s booming Latino population?
Bush, 37, says he’s more than just a famous surname. Both his grandfather and uncle were presidents; his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, may run for the White House in 2016.
George P. Bush is running for state land commissioner, a post unfamiliar to most Texans, because he says it best suits his skills, not because it could launch him to bigger things in the largest Republican-leaning state.
“It’s a legacy that I embrace and that I’m not going to run away from,” Bush told The Associated Press in an interview during a recent visit to the affluent Dallas suburb of Frisco. “But certainly, in this campaign, I have to identify myself and talk about my own track record.”
That isn’t always easy.
People want to know how often he calls assorted relatives for advice and what sleeping at the White House was like. Political observers wonder if the Spanish-speaker who offers a unique blend of Republican royalty and Hispanic heritage can slow what looks like Texas’ inevitable demographic slide toward a Democratic-leaning state. His mother, Columba, is from Mexico.
Jeremy Bird, who helped President Barack Obama win re-election last year by using data analysis to tailor voter mobilization to the most promising areas, helped tilt Nevada and Colorado to the Democrats in the 2012 presidential race. Now, Bird and other Obama veterans are leading Battleground Texas, a group that hopes to do the same thing in Texas.
“This is something not to be taken lightly. It’s a well-capitalized, well-financed group that’s intent on developing a long term strategy. That’s problematic,” Bush said. “It’s going to require more for candidates like myself and people from the party to step up their game. Not necessarily change our principles, but change our tactics.”
He said Republicans will have to recruit more Spanish-speakers, campaign more frequently along Texas’ border with Mexico, and improve their youth outreach on college campuses and via social media.
Bush said he considers himself an asset to the party’s Hispanic outreach efforts. But he also said the GOP’s long-term strategy cannot simply be running more bilingual candidates.
“I’ve been asked whether knowing Spanish and being Hispanic myself is a positive in getting Hispanic voters and I don’t believe it is,” he said. “I think Hispanics look for a friend, they look for someone who understands, whose willing to relate, to hear their issues and welcome them to the party and to their campaigns. That’s what we’re doing.”
Bush’s campaign style, though, has been criticized by some as uncomfortable, and his stump speeches occasionally can sound canned.
“I’m not running for office to be somebody but really just to do something. … This isn’t about making a statement. It’s about making a difference,” he told about 600 homeowners and GOP activists who crowded into the clubhouse of a new Frisco subdivision.
Bush has raised $3.3 million since November even though no Democratic candidate has emerged for land commissioner.
A Democrat hasn’t won any of Texas’ 29 statewide offices since 1994, the nation’s longest streak of single-party dominance. But Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of Texas’ population growth over the past decade and now make up 35 percent of its population. They tend to vote Democratic, with Obama capturing 71 percent of the Latino vote nationwide last year.
Closer to home, no Republican represents any majority Hispanic district in the Legislature, even though the GOP holds sizable majorities in the House and Senate. The only Hispanic ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas, Ted Cruz, is a Republican whose father was born in Cuba. Many top GOP leaders are counting on him and Bush to remake the party’s image with Hispanics.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, scoffs at that.
“How is it,” he asked, “that these people think that if they’re fortunate to be born to a Hispanic mother and are of Hispanic heritage, that gives them the right to have the support of the Hispanic community?”
Bush said Hispanics “don’t vote in a monolith.” He sidestepped questions about national issues such as immigration, choosing to focus on the responsibilities of the land commissioner. The office oversees vast oil and mineral rights which help fund public education. It also administers benefits to military veterans.
“This is an office I’ve had my heart on for years,” Bush said. “I’m a former educator, a veteran and I have a strong energy and asset background. This is kind of what I’m excited about.”
Born in Houston, Bush grew up in Florida, where his father was governor from 1998 until 2007. He graduated from and played baseball for Rice University in Houston before teaching school in inner-city Miami and working on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
He earned a law degree from the University of Texas and clerked for a federal judge, then later founded a capital company in Fort Worth. In 2010, he served an eight-month tour in Afghanistan with U.S. Naval Intelligence.
Bush is on the board of Uplift Education, a major charter school operator in North Texas, and is a strong proponent of school choice for all families. On June 3, his wife Amanda gave birth to the couple’s first child, Prescott, and Bush joked that he was looking forward to his son carrying on the family tradition … of playing baseball at Rice.
Most everyone else, though, is interested in another family tradition.
“You just don’t know about political dynasties,” said Sharon Born, a 66-year-old flight attendant who chatted with Bush at the Frisco event. “But on the other side we might have Hillary (Clinton) after Bill, and then Chelsea. So, I’ll take the Bushes.”