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Austin American Statesman: George P. Bush absent from candidate forums as rivals gun for a runoff

By Jonathan Tilove - American-Statesman Staff

Highlights
  • Land Commissioner George P. Bush is in an unlikely fight for a second term against three rivals.
  • Despite his dynastic pedigree, Bush is running on his allegiance to President Donald Trump.
  • The future of the Alamo has excited interest in the election pitting Bush against predecessor Jerry Patterson.

In 2014, the future belonged to George P. Bush.

Elected to statewide office his first time out, out-polling even Greg Abbott, he was the scion of one of America’s great political dynasties. He was the grandson and nephew of presidents and the son of someone who, at that moment, looked like he might have been about to become president. Young and handsome, he was both a Bush and Hispanic, thanks to Columba, his Mexican-born mother, holding the promise that he could lead Texas Republicans into a renewed era of political hegemony in a changing state, even as he branded himself a “movement conservative.”

The new Texas land commissioner was a future governor or senator, maybe even a future president, in waiting.

But somehow, less than four years later, Bush’s future is uncertain.

At 41, he is now headed into a March 6 primary against his predecessor, Jerry Patterson and two little-known candidates — Davey Edwards and Rick Range — with the very real possibility of being forced into a runoff, and maybe even ultimately to defeat in May in his bid to keep what was supposed to be a politically fool-proof job.

It would be a humiliating coda to a storied family’s epic run.

How could this be?

“The yesterdayness of the Bush name has hurt,” said University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw, who worked as a strategist on both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

And yet, George P. Bush is the one Bush who sought to accommodate himself to the age of Trump, the one Bush who campaigned and voted for candidate Donald Trump, and the one Bush who has pledged his political troth and hitched his political star to President Trump.

George P. Bush trumpeted a tweeted endorsement from Donald Trump Jr., and, on the night of the State of the Union, tweeted, “In 2016, I endorsed Donald Trump and campaigned for him because I believed he could help #MAGA. Tonight in his #SOTU he again showed why our country needed new direction. @txglo, I am enacting conservative reforms and working alongside the Trump agenda—thank you @POTUS”

Bush, who would never have been elected land commissioner were it not for his last name and family, had come to fully embrace the man whose election was, in very personal terms, a repudiation of his family and its political values.

Still, for all this, Bush might have escaped a serious primary challenge were it not for the Alamo.

“You cannot have your name associated with a scandal involving the Alamo, it’s just No. 1 on your list of `Don’t do this in Texas,’” Shaw observed, though the scandal for Bush might be less anything he has done regarding the Alamo, and more the way Bush, his office and his campaign have reacted to a spate of negative stories, which they have, in the style of Trump, identified as “fake news.”

“It all seems reactive and cynical and calculated,” Shaw said. “If he doesn’t define himself, something else will, and that’s the real danger of the Alamo stuff.”

Shaw is co-director of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll that, in results released last week, found Bush leading his predecessor, Jerry Patterson, 57 percent to 31 percent with two other lesser-known candidates — Davey Edwards and Rick Range — getting 6 percent each. But that was only after respondents were pushed to choose. On first pass, 44 percent were undecided, a very high number in a race with an incumbent with such a famous name.

The Bush campaign declined to make Bush available for an interview with the American-Statesman, or to provide his public schedule.

A new battle at the Alamo

As of Jan. 25, Bush had a little over $3 million in his campaign account, while Patterson, who didn’t enter the race until December, had just under $100,000. Last week, the Patterson campaign started running radio ads on Texas broadcasts of “The Rush Limbaugh Show.”

Here’s the script from one: “The shrine of Texas liberty, the Alamo. In 1836, a battle there defined who we are as Texans and showed the world the meaning of courage. Now there is a new battle at the Alamo. Land Commissioner George P. Bush intends to re-imagine its history and even plans to remove the Alamo Cenotaph, a monument to those who died. Texans are tired of monuments being removed. George P. Bush’s own audit found his management of the Alamo seriously flawed, but he’s refused to make the audit public and even threatened to punish those who tell the truth. It’s time for Texans to once again draw a line in the sand.”

On Sept. 23, by a 57-1 vote, the Texas State Republican Executive Committee, picking up on grass-roots anxiety, passed a resolution expressing concern that Bush’s leadership of the effort to restore the Alamo was lacking in transparency and a singular focus on the 1836 battle that makes the historic site in downtown San Antonio the most sacred shrine in Texas.

In mid-October, a rally to stop the cenotaph from being moved by some descendants of those it honors, turned into an anti-Bush rally, as Rick Range, a gaunt and chiseled figure well-known among Alamo buffs in Texas, called for making Bush’s defeat the rallying cry for March 6, the 182nd anniversary of the fateful battle in which the 189 defenders perished.

Edwards was there, as was Patterson, who was hoping to recruit someone else to run, though neither spoke at the rally.

“This is fake news,” Ash Wright, Bush’s political director and campaign manager, said of the rally. “Commissioner Bush is completely committed to preserving the Alamo and telling the story of the battle.”

“One of the considerations is where should the cenotaph be once the battlefield is recreated around the Alamo,” Wright said. “No final decisions have been made.”

A week later, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued an interim charge for the Senate Finance Committee to examine how the General Land Office was handling a $450 million renovation — a mix of public and private money — to the area surrounding the Alamo. At its Dec. 5 hearing, one senator after another subjected Bush to withering questioning about the future of the Alamo, and why the nonprofit structure he had created to manage it seemed so convoluted.

Three days later, Patterson, having failed to find a formidable candidate to challenge Bush, jumped into the race.

On Feb. 8, the Statesman revealed that an unreleased draft audit report, prepared by internal auditors for the General Land Office, found that the agency’s use of the nonprofit was unduly complicated and sometimes led to practices that run afoul of state requirements. Bush said the report had been “doctored,’ though he didn’t say how. His agency has said the Texas Department of Public Safety is investigating. His campaign labeled the Statesman story as “fake news.”

But, on Feb. 15, Bush said that he planned to resign this spring from the board of the Alamo Trust, the nonprofit that manages day-to-day operations of the Alamo.

No show in Llano County

On Tuesday, the Llano County Republican Committee held its first quarterly meeting of 2018 at the American Legion Hall in Llano. Long tables were set up, a lasagna and salad dinner was served. About 70 people attended. A copy of the minutes of the last meeting, held Dec. 5 in Horseshoe Bay, was at each place setting, noting that the next meeting would be Feb. 20 and that “George P. Bush, Texas Land Commissioner, is scheduled to be guest speaker.”

But Llano County GOP Chairman Bob Cunningham explained as the program got underway that when county party leaders realized that Bush was facing a primary, they felt obliged to invite the other three candidates, and when they informed the land commissioner’s office of the change, “George P. decided at that point that he had other obligations and couldn’t make it. We tried very hard, he just didn’t want to be part of a forum like this.”

Range, a retired teacher and firefighter from Dallas County, was also missing Tuesday because he had a dental emergency.

But Patterson, who lives in Austin, and Davey Edwards, a land surveyor from Decatur, were there, and when they were each asked what distinguishes them from Bush and one another, Patterson went first, replying dryly, “What sets me apart from George P. Bush simply stated is, I’m here, and that’s been repeated across Texas for about two months.”

“This is my 16th forum that I’ve been to. I’ve been to meet-and-greets, and I have yet to see George P. Bush,” Edwards said when it was his turn. “I don’t even know what he looks like.”

Bush’s three rivals are really a team of rivals meant to keep Bush below 50 percent in the primary and force a runoff.

“I didn’t think Davey or Rick by themselves could get George P. Bush in a runoff, so I think we’re going to get him in a runoff, and we have all pledged to each other that we will support whoever survives and makes the runoff,” Patterson told the Llano Republicans.

“They’re both solid. I voted for Davey,” Buck Kelsey, a former president of the Llano Tea Party, said after the forum.

Kelsey said that four years ago he voted for Bush, who had come out to campaign.

“But what he has done in the meantime is almost criminal,” Kelsey said of his Alamo management. “It’s smoke and mirrors, and it’s just not right.”

And, of Bush’s absence, Kelsey said he doesn’t have much use for “anybody who withdraws from competition like that.”

Two nights later, Patterson and Bush shared the stage for the first time in the campaign, not at a candidate forum but at the Texas Latino GOP PAC’s Tough Tejano Gala in Houston.

The Houston Chronicle covered the dinner and according to its report, “As Bush walked out of the event to his campaign van, a Houston Chronicle reporter tried to ask Bush how he plans to reach out to more Latino voters. But an organizer of the event physically blocked the reporter, saying the campaign had been promised members of the media would not be present.”

The first 100 days

On April 22, 2015, Bush stood at a lectern with the official General Land Office seal. Behind him, flags bracketed the image of a majestic white building — the mid-19th century General Land Office building that now serves as the Capitol Visitors Center. For just under 10 minutes, Bush talked about his first 100 days in office.

“This staging suggests that Commissioner Bush sees himself as on a track leading to the presidency,” Jennifer Mercieca, a Texas A&M University associate professor of political communication, told the Statesman at the time. “The staging is so presidential, in fact, that a viewer could easily be confused about who is speaking. The `first 100 days’ trope is how we judge presidential performance, not land commissioners.”

There was no live audience or reporters in attendance. Watching it live required the live-streaming app Periscope. As Bush spoke, his office issued complementary tweets. Video of the event was then posted on YouTube.

The Statesman had asked to cover Bush’s speech in person, but his press secretary, Brittany Eck said it couldn’t be done.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t room with all of the camera equipment,” Eck said.

In their 2004 book, “The Bushes, Portrait of a Dynasty,” Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, described George P. Bush as “the star of the new generation of Bushes.”

“Clearly his father, grandfather, and uncle the president delighted in his bright political future,” they wrote. “They began calling him by the nickname `44,’ the next in line after 41 and 43.”

Asymmetric threats

In the summer of 2015, Bush launched a “reboot” of the General Land Office, slashing staff and replacing much of the agency leadership with political and family friends.

Bush launched the reboot at a staff meeting with language usually associated with the war on terror.

“We face many threats, asymmetric threats that were probably not around 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and many of the threats aren’t external, though we can say that legislators sometimes present those challenges, externally we’re doing fine,” Bush said. “The real threat is internally.”

Edwards, who, as a land surveyor, works closely with the General Land Office on behalf of his clients, recalled for the Llano GOP that with the reboot, “a lot of my friends working in the General Land Office were terminated as a result of what the administration called an internal threat.”

“Then, for the next three years, a majority of the staff would walk around with their tails between their legs. They were afraid to make any decisions,” Edwards said. ‘Nobody’s willing to make a decision, because if they make a decision, they may be the next one in line to get fired.”

Making news

On Jan. 20, Bush visited The Eagle, the Bryan-College Station newspaper, for an hourlong interview with the editorial board.

He made news.

“The Legislature needs to take a deep look at the rainy day fund,” Bush said. “We need a special session, and the governor needs to call it.”

The governor’s office was not pleased.

Bush had to have known that what he was saying was diametrically opposed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s position, that he was adopting the talking point of the governor’s critics.

It was baffling. Had he let slip his true feelings? Or could he possibly have not known the implications of what he was saying?

The following Monday, Bush issued a correction: “I clearly misspoke. I agree that calling a special session is not necessary. I will continue to work under Gov. Abbott’s leadership as we help Texans throughout the hurricane recovery process.”

Patterson, meanwhile, supports tapping the rainy day fund for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

Asked why by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at an interview at the Austin Club on Thursday morning, Patterson replied, “Rainy day fund. Fifty-two inches,” referring to the record rainfall Harvey dumped on Houston and the Texas coast.

Bush, who happened to be visiting The Eagle on Confederate Heroes Day, also made news when he said he did not believe the state should continue to celebrate the holiday, explaining that some consider it a “slap in the face” that it is celebrated the same week as Martin Luther King Day.

Patterson said the reply was proof that Bush, who, while born in Houston, grew up in Florida before returning to Texas to attend Rice University, wasn’t really a son of Texas.

“He wasn’t raised here, he doesn’t have any relatives who fought for the South,” Patterson said. Bush, he said, would not have the spirit or spine to stand up to the “leftists” who run San Antonio, which owns the cenotaph and the land it sits on, or the broader campaigns against Confederate memorials that, Patterson said, will almost certainly turn their politically correct gaze on the Alamo and the heroes depicted on the cenotaph.

“William Travis owned slaves,” Patterson said. “Jim Bowie was a slave trader.”

Whether it’s Bush’s recent insistence that the cenotaph will stay on the grounds of the Alamo or new moves toward greater transparency of its governance, Patterson told the Llano Republicans, “That is not leadership. You can never trust what somebody does if you have to beat the crap out of them to make them do the right thing.”

As for Confederate Heroes Day, Patterson said he thought it might be better to celebrate Robert E. Lee’s birthday. 

A new breed of Bush

In 2012, George P. Bush backed Ted Cruz, who had met his wife, Heidi, working three cubicles apart on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, in his runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was cut more from classic Bush cloth.

By the time George P. Bush was running for land commissioner, Cruz was moving headlong toward a run for president in 2016 as the uncompromising conservative insurgent in a race in which Bush’s father, Jeb, was, if he chose to run, thought to be the commanding front-runner Cruz would have to overtake to prevail.

At the September 2014 Texas Tribune Festival, George P. Bush was interviewed by the Tribune’s Smith, who read back to Bush a quote of his: “Ted Cruz is the future of the Republican Party.”

“I’m staying out of that race,” Bush told Smith of the presidential contest. “I will not endorse.”

Smith was incredulous.

“What kind of son are you?” Smith asked Bush. “Really, if your dad runs, you’re not going to endorse him?”

“I think folks know that I love him,” Bush said, but “my focus has to be on this agency. If I am entrusted by the voters of Texas to be the land commissioner that is going to occupy my time.”

“You know the headline tomorrow is going to be, `George Bush: Too busy to endorse his dad,’” Smith said.

“Well, I mean, ah, you caught me on that one,” Bush replied.

Jeb Bush did run. His son endorsed him and campaigned for him. And in December 2015, after a year on the job, as the Houston Chronicle reported, George P. Bush was on a video conference call with supporters of his father’s campaign, dropping the names of four people his father might pick as his running mate, and lamenting that he couldn’t spend more time campaigning for his father.

“Yours truly is stuck here in Texas this week, but will be out on the trail,” Bush said. “There’s no better experience than getting involved in a presidential race because you truly do absorb so much more information than say, running for dog catcher like I did in Texas.”

A bitter pill

In August 2016, Bush, who was leading the statewide Republican campaign in Texas in 2016, spoke at a training meeting for county chairs and members of the State Republican Executive Committee.

“I know a lot of folks in this room had dogs in the fight in the primary leading up to this race, but you know what, it’s time to put it aside. And you know, from Team Bush, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but you know what, you get back up and you help the man that won, and you make sure that we stop Hillary Clinton,” Bush said.

A week after the State of the Union last month, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his support for George P. Bush. “Elections are about choices. In 2016 George P. Bush endorsed Donald J. Trump and campaigned for him. His opponent attacked Trump and urged him to quit the race. Texas conservatives have a clear choice: Bush for Texas Land Commissioner.”

Bush’s re-election campaign has created a website — Jerry Patterson: Bad for Texas — cataloging the bad things Patterson had to say about Trump and Cruz. But Trump and Cruz had worse things to say about each other.

Patterson voted for Evan McMullin, a Utah conservative, who ran as an anti-Trump independent, for president in 2016. According to Mark Updegrove, author of “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush,” the first President Bush voted for Hillary Clinton, and the second President Bush didn’t vote for president.

“It’s a farce to run ads attacking Jerry Patterson as being left-wing,” said Tom Pauken, a former Texas GOP chair, who served in the Reagan administration and was among the earliest and most prominent Trump supporters in Texas. He is backing Patterson.

“He didn’t support Trump, but a lot of people didn’t support Trump,” Pauken said, including all the Bushes, with the exception of George P., who, Pauken said, only acted out of self-interest.

Patterson, meanwhile, obliquely addresses the Trump critique when, as he did in Llano, he offers his thumbnail bio.

“I’m a graduate of Texas A&M, served 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a tour in Vietnam,” Patterson said. “I was a senator. I was the author of the Texas concealed handgun law. Not only did I serve in the Marine Corps, my son, Travis is the fifth consecutive generation of our family with overseas wartime service. He was a Marine helicopter pilot in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now his tour is he flies Marine One for President Trump.”

Rebuffed on the right

On Nov. 14, Bush agreed to do an on-camera interview sitting in front of the Alamo with Michael Quinn Sullivan of the conservative group Empower Texans to talk about the Alamo redevelopment and the fate of the cenotaph. Sullivan was polite in his questions and tentative in his reaction to Bush’s answers.

But he was, retrospectively, harsher in his judgment, tweeting this month, “I’ve had (& have) disagreements with some of ‪@Patterson4TX’s policy positions, but he is absolutely right about ‪@georgepbush. The GLO incumbent has proven himself to be lazy, disengaged, incompetent, or a combination thereof. Texans deserve better.”

Julie McCarty, president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party in North Texas, is equally dismissive.

“I’ll never get past George P. Bush coming to Texas and essentially telling us, `I’m running for something. Don’t know what, but I’ll think of something so vote for me,’” McCarty said in an email. “Texas has had enough Bushes. Now with the whole Alamo mess that he got himself into, it proves we were right in the first place. Vote him out.”

Bush didn’t go to the NE Tarrant Tea Party’s candidate forum. Its board voted four for Edwards and two for Patterson.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 15, Alex Jones’ Infowars, which relentlessly boosts Trump to a huge national audience obsessed with the machinations of a “Deep State” that will forever be entwined, for many of those old enough to remember, with the first President Bush’s New World Order, tweeted, “George P. Bush’s record in Texas is one of incompetence and corruption,” with a link to the Patterson campaign’s BushFail site.

The previous night Roger Stone, the longtime Trump confidant who brought Trump and Jones together for their mutual benefit during the 2016 campaign and is now part of the Infowars lineup, went out for Mexican food in downtown Austin with Patterson. They had never met before. But Stone told Patterson he would give him a copy of his 2016 book, co-authored with Saint John Hunt: “The Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty.”

GOP candidates for land commissioner

• George P. Bush, 41, lives in West Austin. He was elected land commissioner in 2014. The son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush, Bush served as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He has a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law and joined Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

Civic participation: Bush co-chaired a $30 million capital campaign for Big Brothers Big Sisters in North Texas and served as the co-chairman of the Dallas/Fort Worth Celebration of Reading. He was the Tarrant County chairman for Uplift Education — a Dallas-based public charter network focused on closing the achievement gap in inner city public schools. He also served on the Board of Trustees for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

• Davey Edwards, 47, lives in Decatur. He is a land surveyor, with a doctorate from the University of Texas at Dallas, a Master of Science degree from Texas A&M Corpus Christi and a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M in College Station. His is past president of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors and was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas Board of Professional Land Surveyors

Civic participation: Edward is chairman of the Decatur Planning and Zoning Commission. a youth baseball coach and a deacon of First Baptist Church in Alvord.

• Jerry Patterson, 71, lives in South Austin. He is the former three-term commissioner of the General Land Office and before that represented District 11 in the Texas Senate. A graduate of Texas A&M University, he joined the Marine Corps, volunteered for duty in Vietnam and was later a naval flight officer serving in Marine fighter squadrons until his retirement from the Marine Corps Reserve as a lieutenant colonel.

Civic participation: Patterson is involved in the production of documentary films on Texas history. As president of the nonprofit Texas Navy Association, he recently completed a film about the 1836-1846 Texas Navy that will be provided to Texas history teachers without charge. He is producing another documentary about the history of border violence during the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution.

• Rick Range, 66, lives in Garland. He is a retired firefighter, working as a driver-engineer with the Mesquite Fire Department for 31 years. He was also a Spanish-language translator for the Mesquite fire and police departments. Range previously worked as the assistant band director at South Garland High School and the band director at Bonham High School.

Civic participation: Range, who is co-writing a book on the Alamo and the Texas War for Independence, is on the board of the Alamo Society and is a member of the Alamo Battlefield Association, the San Jacinto Battleground Conservancy, an associate member of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association, and the founder of Save The Alamo.

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