How Jeb Bush's wife could help win him the White House

Jeb Bush’s secret weapon in his potential White House bid is his wife of 40 years, Columba Bush, supporters of the former Florida governor say.

Columba, who would be the nation’s first Hispanic first lady if her husband wins the presidency, largely eschewed the public spotlight in Florida and is known for having a shy public demeanor.

Before Bush (R) announced in December that he was exploring a bid for the White House, it was thought that Columba could even put the brakes on his national candidacy. 

Yet friends of the Bush family, and those who have worked closely with Jeb and Columba for decades, say that beneath her private persona lies a rock-solid interior. They argue she’s fully prepared to step into the pressure cooker that awaits if Jeb runs for president in 2016.

“Just because she’s reticent to engage publicly doesn’t mean she’s not ready for it,” said Brett Doster, a political
adviser to Jeb’s first campaign for governor in 1993. “She’s strong as iron. If [Jeb] decides to run, she’ll be a great partner on the trail. I think that anybody who would presume she’s not ready for some of these tough tasks is severely underestimating her.”

The Hill interviewed more than a half-dozen people who have known the Bush family for decades, giving new insight into what kind of role Columba might play on the campaign trail if Jeb runs for president and what kind of first lady she’d be should he win.

Those who know the family remain fiercely loyal to Columba, speaking about her in reverent tones.

They talk about the “deep and personal connection” she and Jeb have, saying that she’s a “true matriarch,” having “an incredible capacity to love,” being “engaging and warm” when she works a room of lawmakers or activists, describing her as a “second mom” to staffers on the campaign trail, being eager to find out about the personal, rather than professional, lives of those who come into the Bush family orbit.

The word “underestimated” came up in a handful of conversations. When asked about her perceived shyness, her defenders say that aspect of her personality has been overplayed and misunderstood — she’s “thoughtful,” a “tremendous listener,” “humble,” “genuinely interactive” and a “servant leader,” rather than the kind who stands at the front of a rally. 

They also argue that because she doesn’t put herself front and center, she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves for her public service. 

Allies say that’s just her style — she has “a very low tolerance for the artificiality of politics.”

“A lot of this political noise doesn’t attract her,” said Al Cardenas, a senior partner at Squire Patton Boggs and a close friend of the family for more than four decades. “The glamour aspects of the office don’t attract her, the notoriety doesn’t attract her. … The things that attract so many people to politics just aren’t important to her.”

As first lady of Florida, Columba worked behind the scenes on policy initiatives that remain important to her and Jeb.

Her focus has been primarily on domestic violence; state activists credit her with having turned Florida into a well-funded national leader on policy and public awareness on the issue.

Tiffany Carr, the President and CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Columba first reached out to her in 2000, shortly after Jeb took office. It was long before domestic violence became an “issue du jour,” Carr said.

“I figured this would just be one of those obligatory first lady things that lasted about 15 minutes,” she recalled. “But we took her to a couple of shelters and she had this immediate connection with people.”

Carr said Columba spent hours talking to women and children at the shelters. She began raising awareness of the organization’s hotlines and sought to make inroads with minority groups in the state that hadn’t previously been a part of the coalition’s outreach.

Here, Columba’s working partnership with Jeb came into focus. Acutely aware of the importance of the legislative process in achieving her goals, she told her husband to make domestic violence a priority at the governor’s mansion.

Columba lobbied the spouses of Florida legislators behind the scenes to bring them on board with her policy goals. During Bush’s governorship, the Florida Legislature passed the Family Protection Act, strengthening punitive repercussions against domestic violence offenders in the state, and the Capital Improvement Grant Program, a first-in-the-nation initiative, expanding capacity and improving conditions at women’s shelters.

Columba’s policy bent also extends to substance-abuse, which she views as intertwined with domestic violence. The issue hit close to home in 2002, when daughter Noelle made national headlines, struggling with drugs.

“Columba’s response was not to hide,” said Kathleen Shanahan, Jeb’s former chief of staff. “She educated herself on the issue and sought to highlight the resources in the state that were available to others dealing with the same thing.”

Columba took on the role of “National Madrina,” or godmother, for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, hosting statewide conferences in an effort to keep young Hispanic girls off drugs.

She later served as co-chairwoman of a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism program aimed at keeping children alcohol-free, currently serving on the board of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Still, if Columba is to obtain a wider platform for her passions, she’ll have to spend the next two years outside her comfort zone. 

If she’s game, Republicans believe she could be a touchstone for Jeb in the general election, particularly in rallying the Hispanic vote.

The Mexican-born immigrant has steeped Jeb in Hispanic culture. They speak Spanish at home, and Bush allies credit her with helping shape Jeb’s “act of love” message on immigration reform.

But some Republicans believe Jeb’s moderate tones on immigration reform are a conservative apostasy that will doom him, particularly in early-voting caucus and primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.

Columba would be placed squarely in the crosshairs of Bush’s detractors, embodying what they believe is too soft an approach to the issue, potentially serving to rally conservative grassroots voters against Bush.

“In the primaries, the idea of a candidate talking immigration reform with a biracial family on the stump is going to be a big moment,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “She’s going to have to navigate it as well as Jeb does.”

“These moments, you never know when they’ll come, but they’ve come for all of the first ladies,” O’Connell added.

Having worked with Bush on immigration-related issues, Alfonso Aguilar, Latino partnership director at the American Principles Project, says Columba will be ready to meet that moment.

He likened Columba to another former Bush first lady, Laura, who flipped the script on the media narrative that she was shy and remote by blossoming into a confident political figure in her time in the White House.

“[Columba] is going to be fine,” Aguilar said. “This is a role that people have to grow into.”