Bush wants to see a ‘more welcoming’ GOP, but his support for Trump raises some eyebrows
by James Barragán, The Dallas Morning News.
As a navy officer who fought in Afghanistan, George P. Bush saw the lengths to which radical Islamic terrorists went to spread their hateful ideology.
Then, on Aug. 3, terror hit home when a mass shooter killed 22 people in El Paso to repel what he called “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Bush, the Texas land commissioner, had seen silence follow similar attacks. He didn’t want that to happen again.
“There have now been multiple attacks from self-declared white terrorists in the U.S. in the last several months. This is a real and present threat we must all denounce and defeat,” he said in a tweet hours after the shooting. “I am praying for the victims of the shooting in El Paso. And I am asking that all Americans stand firm against all forms of terrorism.”
As Texas voters grow more diverse and Republicans begin searching for a broader appeal to voters of color, Bush’s quiet leadership on the issue puts him in position to play a leading role in the party heading into the next decade — especially in a post-Trump era.
Other Republican officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and even President Donald Trump followed Bush’s lead after the attack and publicly denounced its white supremacist roots.
“He gave cover to people that were curious about whether or not that kind of statement would be supported. When it was clear that it was a political winner, the others followed suit,” said Jason Villalba, a former Republican state representative from Dallas. “But George wasn’t doing it for politics, he was doing it because it was the right thing to do. … That’s what he’s done consistently.”
Bush’s leadership on making the GOP more inclusive is among the reasons that many political observers see him as a future candidate for higher office, notwithstanding some of his stumbles as land commissioner.
He’s been criticized for his office’s recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and for his handling of the Alamo’s redevelopment. He’s also faced scrutiny for taking political donations from businesses that received contracts from his office.
But despite some missteps, observers see Bush as someone with conservative bona fides who can bridge the GOP’s gap with moderates and voters of color.
“He’s young, he’s Latino, he’s able to talk the conservative talk but also walk the moderate walk,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “To me, he can thread that needle. But it’s a real challenge. There are some hard positions from many Republicans in the party that make it difficult to develop a moderate unity.”
Standing up for diversity
A fourth-generation politician from a family that includes a senator, two governors and two presidents, Bush is an under-the-radar elected official who keeps his head down and focuses on the laundry list of tasks his General Land Office oversees.
But behind the scenes, Bush, whose mother is a Mexican immigrant, is a strong advocate for diversity in the Republican Party, encouraging young Latino candidates to run for office and strongly condemning racism in the political sphere – even by some within his own party.
Last year, Bush was the first statewide official to denounce an effort in the Tarrant County Republican Party to remove a Muslim vice chairman from his post.
Lately, it’s become something of a pattern — and also more public.
In early December, after state Rep. Rick Miller of Sugar Land said two of his primary opponents were running because they were Asian, Bush tweeted that there is “no reason, no excuse and no room in our party for racist comments from elected officials … Our party must be bigger and better than these comments.”
A few days later, after the revelation that the chairwoman of the Galveston County Republican Party used a racial slur to describe an African-American Republican, Bush repeated his condemnation and called on her to resign.
But his push for more diversity and inclusiveness in the party sometimes raises uncomfortable conversations about his support for Trump, who many Democrats and activists say has fueled attacks against Latinos and other minorities.
Sometimes, those conversations happen within his own family. Bush was the sole member of his political clan to publicly support Trump in the 2016 presidential election. As the Texas Republican party’s victory chairman that year, Bush said he was focused on winning as many races as possible for his party, and he told The Atlantic he couldn’t “look grass-roots activists in the face and say, ‘Well, Trump is good enough for you, but not for me.’”
He also said the alternative — Hillary Clinton — was “unbearable.”
“Do people have concerns about his rhetoric at times? Certainly, that concern is there,” Bush said of Trump, three years after the election. “But the policies ring with conservatives.”
Back then, Bush said, conservatives were concerned about the Supreme Court, and Trump has rewarded their support through his selection of two staunch conservatives to the bench. Bush said he’s also happy with the progress of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which he said will be crucial to Texas’ continued success.
He said he plans to support the president in next year’s election. But is he completely happy with Trump in the White House?
“I do feel we could be more positive,” Bush said. “We could focus on being a party of opportunity for all Americans.”
Asked about his relationship with Trump (who derided Bush’s father, Jeb, on his way to the Republican presidential nomination), Bush dances an awkward two-step.
“It’s professional,” he said. “I work with him more on Harvey, so that’s HUD and FEMA and making sure we’re just getting resources as quickly as possible. But it’s professional.”
Rottinghaus said Bush’s relationship with Trump is a difficult balancing act.
“He’s a modern incarnation of the GOP in Texas. He is a signal that the party is adapting to the changing demographics of Texas, but he still supports Trump,” he said. “It’s a weird dichotomy.”
But Bush doesn’t hide from the fact that Republicans have trouble attracting voters of color.
“The party runs a very dangerous path if it’s not viewed as being welcoming,” Bush said. “Is that perception there among minority communities? Yeah, and it’s dangerous. But there are those within the party that are focused on mitigating against that.”
Playing the long game
For his part, Bush focuses on outreach to communities that are not traditionally seen as Republican hotbeds: Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics. He meets with black chambers of commerce and attends Chinese New Year events to push voter registration and civic engagement.
He looks at his success in Fort Bend County southwest of Houston – with its ethnically diverse population which he sees as a microcosm of Texas’ future – as proof that a conservative message can ring true with voters of color and immigrants. His similar success in Tarrant County, he said, is proof that Republican policies have broad appeal.
But he fears the radical wing of his party could derail that success, such as people who have falsely claimed that Bush plans to erect a statue of the general who led Mexican troops against the Texians at the Alamo — an assertion he has called an “outright lie” and “flat-out racist.”
Bush said those views come from a vocal minority.
“For someone in my position, there has to be a reminder that there’s a silent majority out there,” who are trying to raise kids, build a family and work toward the American Dream, he said.
But keeping that faith is difficult, Bush acknowledged. He’s seen longtime Republican precinct chairs, important grass-roots leaders, throw in the towel after becoming disillusioned with Trump’s abrasive and unpredictable style and with state leaders who refuse to speak against him.
But Bush said he isn’t giving up. He prides himself on pushing a consistent political vision focused on limited government and individual empowerment throughout his years in public life.
“Conservatism endures — or at least the ideology that I’m proposing that as a party we focus more on — is more enduring than a two-year or four-year political election cycle,” he said. “There’s a foundational layer that’s rooted in faith, rooted in the Constitution, and things are bigger than one individual.”
Though he’s aligned with his party in supporting Trump, Bush is clearly playing the long game. He touts the importance of working across the aisle and doesn’t see bipartisanship as a bad word.
State Rep. Cesar Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who considers Bush a friend, said he appreciates Bush’s willingness to hear him out on issues that they disagree on — such as Trump.
“I don’t agree he should have endorsed Trump by any means, and he and I have talked about that,” Blanco said. “What I appreciate about ‘P’ is that when it comes to anti-Latino rhetoric, he calls it out … and that’s important.”
“At some point Democrats might be in power and George might be around for that,” Blanco continued. “I think he understands that.”
Bush is nearly halfway through a second term as land commissioner, which brings up a persistent question: Is he looking for a higher political office?
“We’ll see,” Bush said. “I love Texas policy, so I really don’t see myself running for federal office.
“What I’ve learned from the business world is if you work really hard, accomplish great things and people see your heart and your courage to stand up for what’s right, doors open,” Bush said. “So, I think opportunities will exist down the road to serve in a higher role.”
James Barragán covers Texas politics for The Dallas Morning News.