JULY 29, 2002
INTIMATE TREASURES, a sex shop in the resort town of Fort Walton Beach, is housed in a pink-and-blue, virtually windowless concrete building—just the kind of faux-cheery structure one finds in commercial strips throughout the Sun Belt. According to its website, the store specializes in sensual lingerie, erotic games, massage oils, and "videos, videos, videos." A few years ago a sales clerk at the store was charged with two counts of obscenity for selling allegedly beyond-the-pale pornography to undercover cops. Intimate Treasures is, in short, not the sort of place one associates with government largesse—particularly not from a Republican administration that pledged to restore "honor and dignity" to the White House. Yet last September 19 the sex shop received a low-interest, 25-year loan for $410,250, guaranteed by George W. Bush's Small Business Administration (SBA). Why? Perhaps because whatever its failings, Intimate Treasures possesses one attribute that makes it a highly attractive destination for federal dollars: It's located in Florida.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance the Bush administration places on Florida. It is the largest swing state in the country, the ground on which Bush won his contested victory in 2000, and a cornerstone of the White House's reelection strategy in 2004. But more than any of these things, it is the state in which the president's younger brother Jeb is running for reelection as governor this November. No matter what else happens at the ballot box this fall, if Jeb loses to the eventual Democratic nominee—either Janet Reno or Bill McBride—it will be seen as a humiliating defeat for the president and a vote of no confidence for his administration. As a result, it seems that no federal grant, no business loan, no tinkering with federal policy that might give Jeb a political leg up is too small to merit White House attention. "We believe we are not just in a battle with the Florida Bushies but the Washington Bushies too," says Ryan Banfill, Florida Democratic Party spokesman. "And we're not just running against the White House. It's like we're running against the State Department, the Education Department, and the rest of the Cabinet too." Over the past year and a half the administration has lavished attention on Florida—visits by the president and Cabinet members, high-profile federal conservation projects, joint policy and political planning with the governor's office, and lots and lots of money. Though overall figures on discretionary federal spending are difficult to calculate, Florida seems to be getting a disproportionate share in exactly those areas most likely to help Jeb this fall. In other words, if you pay taxes, you're probably helping to reelect the president's brother.
IN 2000, WHEN Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in New York, pro-New York policies made by the Clinton administration made headlines as a presumed sop to Hillary's campaign. Some, such as the president's clemency for members of the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN, even prompted congressional investigations. By contrast, the press has paid relatively little attention to the way W. has used his office to boost his brother's political fortunes. Almost every week brings another example of federal policy being altered to Florida's—and specifically Jeb's—benefit. After 9/11, when Jeb complained that new restrictions on foreigners making international flight connections in the United States were hurting Florida's tourism, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) loosened the rules. In March the Bush administration gave Jeb a lift with environmentalists by backing restrictions on off-road vehicles in Big Cypress National Preserve—even though it simultaneously discarded a Clinton-era snowmobile ban in Yellowstone National Park. Earlier this year the Bush administration announced that NASA would move a major space shuttle maintenance program—and with it hundreds of high-paying jobs—from California to Florida. W. has toughened sanctions on Cuba and restricted oil drilling near Florida's beaches. Brotherly love has even led him to break a contract. Just this month a federal judge ruled that the administration had violated a legal agreement by acceding to Jeb's request that it not move forward with new protections for Florida manatees. "No justification has been offered for this delay other than Governor Bush's request," the judge wrote. "Whatever the political ramifications, such a justification cannot excuse a violation of the agreement."
According to a report in The Palm Beach Post last year, the Bush brothers' political advisers hold a joint weekly conference call to discuss Florida strategy and how Washington can help Tallahassee. One way Washington helps is by sending the president to Florida—often. Since being sworn in, W. has visited Florida ten times, more than any other state but Pennsylvania. Then there is the platoon of Bush Cabinet secretaries regularly parachuting into the state, including, by The New Republic's count, Commerce Secretary Don Evans (five times); Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (three times each); Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge (twice each); and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta (once each). Ever wonder why the Beltway press writes so little about Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez—who as a Hispanic Bush administration official from the electoral battleground of Orlando is a sort of laboratory-perfect political tool for Jeb? Maybe it's because he's so frequently in Florida (nine trips so far). And even when administration officials don't show up in the state, their press offices regularly send quotes to Jeb for use in his press releases announcing new pots of federal money.
And the new pots of federal money come with remarkable frequency. Nowhere has the president's desire to help his little brother been more evident than in the wave of federal funds washing into Florida—and in the seamless integration between the White House and the governor's office in directing and hyping them. In particular, the White House has sent Washington dollars to buttress the three primary themes of Jeb's reelection effort: education, homeland security, and the environment.
EDUCATION IS THE issue Florida voters care about most, and, like his brother in the White House, Jeb campaigns relentlessly on the subject. Often he's not campaigning alone. Education Secretary Rod Paige has already been to Florida a whopping eight times. As the World Trade Towers were struck on September 11, President Bush was reading to children at a Sarasota elementary school, in part to draw attention to a reading initiative his brother had announced a few days earlier.
Indeed, the Bush brothers have masterfully linked their twin education plans, implying that Jeb's program is the ideal state complement to W.'s new federal law. Just as Jeb's top education priority is an early-reading initiative he calls "Just Read, Florida!", the Education Department's top priority is implementing the "Reading First" component of the new federal education law. In April, Jeb applied for federal Reading First funds with a proposal based on recommendations from his so-called Reading Leadership Team. What has gone unreported, however, is that two of the members of that 32 person "team" also sit on the federal panel that considers each state's proposal. In other words, two of the folks who helped write Jeb's proposal were also on the committee that decided whether to fund it. When Paige announced the first three states to win these major new reading grants in June, Florida—surprise!—made the list, picking up a tidy $45.6 million for Jeb's reading program (a fact he was quick to tout in press releases and at an Orlando event with Paige himself two weeks later).
In the wake of 9/11, homeland security displaced education as Florida's most important political issue—and here, too, the administration has done well by the Sunshine State. Take the SBA, the same agency that arranged a loan for Intimate Treasures. Following the attacks, the SBA made low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans available to any U.S. company hurt as a direct result of 9/11. Perhaps counterintuitively, no state has benefited as much from the program as Florida. With tourism to the state suffering in the aftermath of the attacks, Jeb aggressively advertised the federal program. The SBA conducted workshops throughout the state to educate businesses about the loans; the head of the SBA himself was dispatched to Miami in December to present the first checks at an event with Jeb. As of June 28, fully one-quarter of the SBA loans, worth $89 million, have gone to Florida—more money than to the next three biggest recipients (California, Texas, and New York) combined. (The hardest-hit New York businesses are eligible for separate SBA funding streams.) The total number of loan applications from Florida approved by the SBA for this program is equal to that of the next five states combined.
Then there's the Transportation Department's port-security grant program. Last month Secretary Mineta awarded $92.3 million to states to beef up the safety of the nation's waterways. Mineta made the announcement in New York, one of the busiest ports in the country. But the big winners were again Florida and Jeb Bush. As the governor himself noted, more than 21 percent of the new Transportation Department funding goes to Florida's ports. Indeed, Florida received more than twice as much as the New York/New Jersey port, even though more cargo goes in and out of that harbor than all of Florida's ports combined. In fact, measuring by cargo volume, not one of the nation's 15 busiest ports is in Florida. Were terrorists to smuggle a container packed with weapons of mass destruction into the United States, Florida isn't a likely point of entry. But insiders say the criteria for the grants was skewed toward ports with lots of passenger ships or petroleum tankers—characteristics that just happen to favor Florida's harbors.
But perhaps the Bush administration's costliest pro-Jeb policies have been its environmental ones. While many observers have noted the glaring discrepancy between the administration's conservationist impulse in Florida and its pro-development, pro-extraction impulses everywhere else, few have pointed out that White House efforts to burnish Jeb's environmental bona fides have come with a price tag—one being picked up by American taxpayers.
Jeb, like every other viable politician in Florida, opposes drilling for oil or gas off the state's coast. It is no coincidence that the Bush administration, despite its insistence on tapping energy sources on sensitive lands in Alaska and elsewhere, has steadily reduced drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida's shores. The first big decision came in July 2001 when the Department of Interior, which was preparing to sell a batch of new oil and gas leases in the Gulf, collectively known as "Sale 181," shrank the area to be opened for drilling from the Clinton-era proposal of 5.9 million acres down to 1.5 million—sparing giant chunks of the eastern and northern sections of the original plan (i.e., the ones closest to Florida) from exploration and reducing by hundreds of millions of dollars the revenues the government will collect.
President Bush's second set of Florida drilling decisions, announced this May 29 in the Oval Office with Jeb by his side, was even more politically advantageous. The administration agreed to pay $235 million in taxpayer dollars to buy back oil and gas leases in the Gulf and in southwestern Florida. (That $235 million equals more than one-third of the administration's entire land-acquisition budget for 2002.) The first part of the arrangement involves paying Chevron, Conoco, and Murphy Oil $115 million to relinquish leases in an area of the Gulf known as Destin Dome, 25 miles south of the white-sand beaches of Pensacola. Those oil companies had bought the Destin Dome leases in the 1980s with the understanding that exploration was subject to state and federal approval. Florida objected to the drilling plans at Destin Dome, and the companies sued. The administration is now settling the lawsuit by buying back the leases. But we are almost certainly shelling out too much money. The Destin Dome leases were originally bought from the government for just $13 million or about $1.2 million each. And last December the feds sold 95 leases in Sale 181 to oil companies for a little more than $340 million (an average of $3.6 million per lease). Under the recently announced settlement, however, some of the very same oil companies are selling the government seven leases a few miles north of Destin Dome for $115 million, an average of $16 million per lease—at least six times the per-lease average the Clinton administration paid to settle a virtually identical Florida drilling lawsuit in 1995. In short, under the current deal, Jeb and W. get to pose as conservationists, the oil companies make a massive profit—and taxpayers get stuck with the tab.
The Bush administration also announced another deal in May—its $120 million purchase of oil and gas leases in the Everglades. The leases, scattered across 400,000 acres, are owned by one of the biggest developers in Florida, the Collier family, which has been trying to get the government to buy the highly speculative mineral rights for years. In 1996 the Colliers lobbied the government to swap the leases for closed Navy bases that the family could develop. At the time Interior officials argued that the Everglades leases were overvalued by the Colliers and worth little to the government. The Colliers tried again in 2000, proposing to trade their leases for lucrative land at Homestead Air Force Base. That deal also failed. From these disappointments, the Colliers seem to have decided that the government wouldn't take them seriously unless they showed real intention to harm the land; so last year they moved forward with a dramatic plan to prospect for oil and gas, which would start by detonating dynamite in 14,700 newly drilled holes across 27,000 acres of Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades. That finally caught the attention of environmentalists, who began a crusade to force the government to pay the Colliers not to drill.
MEANWHILE, BETWEEN 1997 AND 2002 the Collier family's companies gave about $110,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and to Jeb's campaigns. When George W. took office last year the Department of Interior, prodded by Jeb, reinvigorated negotiations with the family. If Congress approves the deal, the Colliers will get $120 million for highly speculative leases that, due to onerous regulations, were probably never worth exploring in the first place. The sale does nothing to stop the oil operations that are actually underway in Big Cypress and will actually increase drilling in the Gulf because the Interior Department wants to pay the Colliers with credits for Gulf leases. But this won't be Florida's problem: Since the Bushes have pushed most Gulf drilling away from Florida's beaches, any leases given to the Colliers will presumably be off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, and/or Louisiana. In Florida, where no environmental issue is more important to the state's increasingly eco-conscious voters than oil drilling, the deal was hailed as an enormous victory for Jeb.
It's not only oil speculators who are profiting from the administration's politically motivated Sunshine State environmentalism. Last year the Energy Department funded a $37.4 million grant to spur development of new technologies for environmental cleanup. Almost 30 percent of the money went to Florida, mostly to little-known Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. The university's president, Cuban-American Modesto Maidique, is a longtime supporter of the Bush family and sits on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB)—one of those obscure government panels that presidents fill with patronage hires. One can only speculate what advice the panel may have offered Secretary Abraham. But according to an Energy Department official, Abraham's office has sent out a request to Energy staffers to come up with a proposal for another $3 million in funding to FIU. "Congress never thought we were going to design a program for Florida to help the president's brother get elected," says the official, adding, in his words, that staffers have been told: "If you want to do a new initiative, and you want to get funding for it, you better show how it's going to help a state that was close in 2000, like Florida. Obviously, the word is out to help Jeb any way you can."
ONE MIGHT IMAGINE Jeb Bush would downplay the extent to which federal policy and taxpayer dollars are being driven by his electoral needs. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Read through the hundreds of press releases his office has issued over the last 18 months, and you realize that Jeb is selling himself to Florida voters on the premise that he can leverage resources and favors from his brother's administration. Rather than denying the politicization of the budget process, Jeb plays it up. For instance, in February when the U.S. Department of Agriculture released $52.4 million in rural development aid to Florida, the governor's office bragged that the funds—which are supposed to be awarded following a careful review process—were granted after a meeting between Jeb and Secretary Veneman. Likewise, in May he boasted that the INS had changed its policy on international air travelers in response to his personal request. He is running on his influence. "I know someone in Washington," he likes to say.
And why shouldn't he? The beauty of it for Jeb is that all Florida Democrats can do is grit their teeth and express grudging support for the money flowing into their state. After all, they want to protect their state's environment, secure education dollars, win homeland security funds, and help out its small businesses, too; they can hardly argue that federal dollars should go somewhere else. The real surprise is that thus far national Democrats and the media have given so little scrutiny to the president's efforts to aid his brother's campaign—the kind of scrutiny, for example, that accompanied Bill and Hillary in 2000. If that changes, who knows what intimate treasures they'll find.
This article originally ran in the July 29, 2002 issue of the magazine.