TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Jeb Bush wept before a black Baptist education group Friday as he introduced minority staffers and appointees he said have been ridiculed by other blacks for associating with him.
Bush’s decision to abolish affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting prompted marches and demonstrations, including a sit-in by black lawmakers in the governor’s office suite, last year.
Bush said he feels hurt by the criticism, not for himself but for people such as Leslie Steele, one of his press aides, and Lottery Secretary David Griffin, both black. Afterward, Bush said he teared up when he looked at Steele in the audience.
“I saw her and I decided to speak from my heart about it,” Bush said.
He had asked that Steele come to the podium. When she did, she handed him a tissue that he used to wipe his eyes.
“I’m not crying for me,” Bush told Steele. “I’m crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
Bush said the criticism was unfair because his initiative that replaced affirmative action has increased black enrollment at universities. He also said that minority contracting with agencies he controls is up about 90 percent and that his administration is the most diverse in Florida history.
However, white as well as black enrollment at universities increased last fall, leaving the percentage of blacks about the same.
The Republican governor received a standing ovation when he was introduced at the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education and again when he finished speaking.
The group’s leaders support Bush’s voucher program that uses tax dollars to send children from failing public schools to private and religious schools.
Other minority organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have opposed vouchers because they take money from public schools.
Bush also supports plans by his brother President Bush to pump federal dollars into faith-based social service organizations.
“I cannot speak for every preacher here, but I can go back to Orlando with a different perspective on Jeb Bush because I sense you really care,” the Rev. Randolph Bracy told the governor.