Jeb Bush photo

Remarks to the National Urban League Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

July 30, 2015

Thank you all very much. I appreciate your hospitality, and your excellent choice of the best state to hold your annual conference.

The Urban League movement runs deep here, with seven affiliates from Tallahassee to Broward County and Greater Miami. If you all were hoping to find the most diverse, dynamic, forward-looking site for your convention, you came to the right place — and you're always welcome in Florida.

Marc, I especially thank you and the trustees for the kind invitation. I'm honored to be your guest.

I'm pleased to see the other candidates here as well — Secretary Clinton, Governor O'Malley, Senator Sanders and a good man who's bringing a lot of wisdom to the Republican side, Dr. Ben Carson. By the way, I am glad he will make it into the top ten for next week's debate. Before that thing's over we might just need a doctor.

For my part, I'm working for every vote, and in politics the best kind of support begins in friendship and fellowship. My Florida friends and partners in the Urban League include some of the most formidable people that any of us know — among them a national trustee, education leader, and great woman, Julia Johnson.

And also a man who basically built this movement from the ground up in South Florida, my friend T. Willard Fair. He first came to our state for a job interview with the Miami affiliate. As he tells the story, and I quote, 'I didn't know if they intended to hire me, but I intended to be hired.' That was 55 years ago. And as we've all learned since, when Tal Fair intends for something to happen, don't be too surprised when it does. He's an unstoppable leader, and I'm honored to call him my friend.

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.' I converted to my wife's Catholic faith. I went to family courthouses where there were cases of children abused or neglected. And parents trying but unable to meet their obligations because of barriers — language, skills, or otherwise — that held them back.

In my next campaign, I visited 250 schools across Florida, many of them in low-income communities. I also partnered with Tal to do something that was totally new to me. Together we built the Liberty City Charter School. At the time there were no charters in Florida. So we said, let's change the law, let's go build a charter school, let's start something new and hopeful for people who shouldn't have to wait for a real opportunity. And together we got it done.

That first year, 90 black children in Liberty City began their journey toward success. And the day that school opened was one of the happiest, proudest moments of my life. Through that listening and learning, what I found were children who had the God-given ability to achieve. Yet for reasons out of their hands — structural, historical, economic — they didn't have the same chance at success as their peers. I'm indebted to Tal, and to many others across Florida, for giving me that perspective. It made me a better person, a better candidate in 1998, and a better governor in the 8 years that followed.

That experience still shapes the way I see the deep-seated challenges facing people in urban communities today. I know that there are unjust barriers to opportunity and upward mobility in this country. Some we can see, others are unseen but just as real. So many lives can come to nothing, or come to grief, when we ignore problems, or fail to meet our own responsibilities. And so many people could do so much better in life if we could come together and get even a few big things right in government. I acted on that belief as governor of Florida. It's a record I'll gladly compare with anyone else in the field.

Just for starters, leaders know there are plenty of tough calls we have to make, so we should not be wasting time agonizing over the easy ones. So, 14 years ago, when the question was whether to keep the Confederate flag on the grounds of the Florida State Capitol, I said no, and put it in a museum where it belongs.

Another easy call was reaching out for talent wherever I found it — for my cabinet and staff, state agencies, and the courts. You're not going to get good judgment in government when everybody comes from the same life experience. We increased the number of black Floridians serving in the judiciary by 43 percent. And I was particularly proud that during my governorship, 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.

In most lives, 'opportunity' is a hollow word unless you've got the dignity of a job and a paycheck. It becomes real when people are hiring and the economy's growing, and that's what we accomplished here in Florida. We got this state's economy growing at 4.4 percent, average family incomes went up, in every income group, and we made Florida the number-one job-creating state in this whole nation.

We applied conservative principles, and applied them fairly and without wavering. We found that with fewer obstacles imposed by government, more people had the opportunity to achieve earned success. We gave more people the tools to move up in the world through adult education and workforce training. We expanded our community college system and made it more affordable for low-income families. Florida in those years helped thousands more first-generation college students make it all the way to graduation.

We didn't lose sight of the ones who had missed their chance at a better life, or maybe even lost their way and landed in jail. In Florida, we didn't want to fill prisons with non-violent offenders. So we expanded drug courts and prevention programs. I took the view — as I would as president — that real justice in America has got to include restorative justice. I opened the first faith-based prison in the United States and signed an executive order to promote the hiring of ex-offenders. In this country, we shouldn't be writing people off, denying them a second chance at a life of meaning. Many ask only for a chance to start again, to get back in the game and do it right — and as a country, we should say yes whenever we can.

We also went after the real enemy that afflicts our cities — the smugglers, drug cartels, and violent criminals that profit from the undoing of so many lives. We passed tough sentencing laws for gun crimes and ensured that dangerous people were kept off our streets. As a result of all this, we brought violent crime in Florida down to a 27-year low, and drug abuse way down as well.

Social progress is always the story of widening the circle of opportunity. For that reason, I gave the challenge of school reform everything I had as governor. Because if we fail at that responsibility, it's a bitter loss. I believe in the right to rise in this country. And a child is not rising if he's not reading.

When I took office, Florida was down near the bottom in student achievement. Almost half of all fourth graders were functionally illiterate, and half of all high-school kids never even graduated. So we overhauled the whole system, set clear standards, and brought out the best in our great teachers. We insisted on testing and accountability. 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.

A lot changed here in those years. Graduation rates went up by 50 percent. The number of black and Hispanic students passing AP exams increased four times over. We also became the nation's leader in early-childhood education, and we still are today. Among minority children, Florida saw the greatest gains anywhere in the United States. And what does that show? It shows every child can learn — no matter their race, no matter their background, no matter where they live. I know this can be done.

The debate is changing, old orthodoxies are falling away. But we can never forget that long-term reform doesn't help a child right now. Years of not learning are years that are lost forever. I think of the kids in Washington, D.C. who've received Opportunity Scholarships. A couple thousand boys and girls, almost all of them black, have been given a chance to leave the worst schools and go to the best. Yet, every year, unions and politicians want to shut it down — because they don't like parental choice, period.

Every parent should have choices. Every school should have high standards and high expectations, and the federal government should have nothing to do with setting them. Washington should support reform and provide resources, especially where the need is greatest. But building knowledge and shaping character is the job of principals, teachers, and parents — that's where the power belongs.

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.

Every one of them was also promised at least one big break in life, in the form of a public school to help them learn who they are and what they can do. For millions, it's a false promise. As technology advances, the first rung of the ladder is getting higher and higher. If we don't create an education system that allows young people to reach it, we're setting them up for a lifetime of failure. So you and I have to call this situation what it is — the worst inequality in America today, and the source of so many other inequalities.

I want to work with the Urban League movement to end this injustice once and for all. For a half century, this nation has pursued a War on Poverty and massive government programs, funded with trillions of taxpayer dollars. This decades-long effort, while well intentioned, has been a losing one. And the casualties can be counted in the millions who never had the chance at work, and whose families fell victim to drugs, violence, and a crushing of the spirit.

One of the best anti-poverty programs is a strong family, led by two committed parents. As the family breaks down, so does opportunity. Poverty among dual-parent families is about 7 percent — among families with single mothers, it's about 35 percent. The reason is simple: it is a lot tougher to raise a family alone.

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.

But for many that is not an option — and there is no tougher job in the world than being a single mom. So as governor of Florida, I tried to do something about it. I doubled our efforts to collect child support payments, and we increased collections by 90%. Together with a quality education and a family support system, ending the cycle of poverty requires access to jobs.

I have set a goal that will define my economic agenda should I become president. I do not for one moment accept the supposed 'new normal' of anemic two percent growth. I believe we are ready in America to achieve annual economic growth of four percent. A lot rides on the difference. And that difference is pretty simple to state. The new normal is more businesses going under rather than starting up. Four percent growth is a true revival of the private sector, and 19 million new jobs. The new normal is the static present for struggling cities. Four percent growth is more enterprise in urban areas, more people moving in, a higher tax base and more revenues — in other words, a better chance to save our cities. We can do this as a country. We can grow at a pace that lifts up everybody, and there is no excuse for not trying.

Big audacious goals are second nature to the men and women of the Urban League. That spirit is needed most when things break down, as we know they do, in anger and violence. We've seen that yet again this year. When all these issues I've discussed, make it harder and harder for people to imagine a hopeful future, then it's easy to see why there's anger and disillusionment. Trust in our vital institutions is at historic lows. It is up to all of us to work diligently to rebuild that trust. That happens one person at a time. One politician at a time. One police officer at a time. One community leader at a time. It begins with respect, dialogue, and the courage to reach out in peace.

Those were exactly the qualities we saw in two of your affiliate presidents, Michael McMillan of St. Louis and J. Howard Henderson of Baltimore. These good men were tested, and they showed us the way. 'Strength to love,' as Martin Luther King called it, always shows the way. And sometimes, as in Charleston last month, it shines as a true light in the darkness.

In the community of that city, we found such grace, such purity of heart, such heroic goodness, such boundless mercy, all gathered up in one story. We like to think that Charleston's response to evil told the world something good and right about this nation and our people, and it surely did. Yet even more, that congregation of believers, and that city, gave witness to the character that built a movement and inspires it to this day. I will endeavor to live up to the goodness of Charleston and work with you to better our communities, whether as your neighbor or your President.

I know there are great and lasting things we can achieve together, maybe only together, to keep America faithful to its ideals of equality and justice for all. Your support in that effort is something I will work every day to earn. I welcome your friendship, and I ask for your vote.

Thank you very much. God bless you all.

Related Images

Jeb Bush, Remarks to the National Urban League Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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