Election 2016

Jeb Bush Email Trove Reveals Predictable Trail Of Access and Favors For Top Donors

An AP investigation shows how political corruption works.

Photo Credit: www.facebook.com/jebbush/photos

As Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush was routinely e-mailed by top campaign donors seeking political favors, from appointments to government boards, action on legislation to help with stalled business deals. And Bush replied, sometimes granting requests, stepping up his lobbying—and also taking no action, which was frustrating to donors.

That’s initial the takeaway from an Associated Press investigation into the 275,000 e-mails that Bush released from his two terms as governor and afterward, where, like Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, Bush also used a private server and deleted personal messages.

Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, told the AP that these requests went through “the appropriate channels” and denied that his fundraisers had special influence. “No, absolutely not,” she replied.

That response, like the fiction that Bush and Clinton are not yet official candidates, is plainly ridiculous. In politics, access to elected officials and being within a circle of people who are known to officer holders and are considered trustworthy, is a rare invaluable asset. It is certainly not the relationship that average voters have with high government officials.

In some respects, the examples in the AP’s report are hardly blockbusters. They involve candidates for judgeships, hospital boards, citrus marketing efforts, real estate deals and the like. Some of the donors have long history of giving money to the Bush family—going back to the earliest stages of George W. Bush’s 1999 campaign for president. Other donors have track records of giving to non-profits created by Jeb Bush after leaving the governor’s mansion.

Take William ‘Bill’ Becker, a Florida citrus grower and longtime Republican donor. “He was among the circle of loyalists invited to huddle with Bush in December to hear about his presidential ambitions,” the AP wrote, citing Becker’s years of concurrent political donations to Bush and lobbying him on matters ranging from state citrus marketing funds, appointments to a citrus marketing board and hospital association, and college donations.

Speaking of a candidate to the Florida Citrus Commission, who Bush did appoint, Becker wrote, “She and her family have been loyal supporters… You met her at the Governor's Mansion on one occasion and I believe you may have met her at the Florida House event at our home. I believe she is immensely well qualified to serve on the Florida Citrus Commission.”

Nine days later, after she got the post, Becker wrote, “Many thanks for an expedited and wonderful appointment.”

The AP’s example of Becker’s interactions with Bush is not unique. The issues may not be as riveting as whether Bush tried to prevent a hospital from turning off the life support system for Terri Schaivo—a major issue for some conservative Christians, or fight federal government efforts to send Elian Gonzales, a Cuban child, back to that country in a custody dispute. But they are what the daily life of a governor often consists of. If anything, the New Yorker's recent profile of Bush's efforts to privatize public education and how that made him and a handful of business colleagues wealthy, is a much more troubling picture of political corruption.

The Bush team defends their candidate’s e-mail record, of course. Meanwhile, a joint statement from major campaign finance reform groups said these relationships are anti-democratic, because their history as donors grants them unusual access and influence to powerful politicians. 

“The emails reveal what most voters already know: Elected officials grant special favors and access to big donors that everyday voters can only dream about,” said the statement by People for the American Way, Every Voice, Public Citizen, Demos, the Brennan Center and Common Cause. “Missing from the AP's initial investigation are voices from the hundreds of organizations and millions of voters mobilizing against the big money election system that incentivizes elected officials at all levels of government to give big donors this kind of special treatment.”

There’s another dimension about American political culture that is revealed by the AP report and underscores why many average Americans correctly feel that the government officials—at many levels—are not thinking about them in them in the first instance.

It’s not just that donors have special access and potential influence to the officeholder. It’s also that in the early stages of major campaigns—whether it was Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s lunch meetings with CEOs in 1999 before he “officially” launched his campaign, or Jeb Bush’s meeting major donors in December as a “non-candidate”—these wealthy people essentially are telling the candidate what they want in exchange for their support and fundraising on their behalf.

In 1999, a Republican lobbyist for Silicon Valley tech firms who was in charge of bringing CEOs to those lunches in Austin,Texas, told me—as an NPR reporter at that time—that the tech CEOs were “educating” W. on issues. Some of these CEOs became Bush "pioneers," bundling 100s of 1,000s of dollars for W. After he became president, this California lobbyist got a White House job as a liaison to the tech sector.

There’s no doubt that Jeb is following these footsteps, which is not just an illustration of how modern political corruption works, but a major way that America’s pro-corporate status quo endures in policy and law.        

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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