As Governor, Jeb Bush Stopped at Nothing to Retaliate Against His Enemies
Source photos by Gage Skidmore and Stokkete/Shutterstock
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his face contorted in a scowl, doesn't get up to greet Alex Villalobos when the big-eyed 42-year-old state senator enters the dimly lit office connected to the executive suite of Tallahassee's Capitol building.
It's early May 2006, shortly after the last day of the legislative session, and Villalobos is seething. He's recently been banished from party leadership and his oak-lined office in the Capitol — largely because he voted against the governor's pet project: making school vouchers part of the state constitution and doing away with a law that limits class sizes in the state's schools.
"You see we mean business," Bush says, jabbing his index finger into the desk. "This is important for the party. It is important for the country."
"How is packing little children into classrooms in my district important for the country?" Villalobos retorts, locking eyes with the governor.
Ignoring the question, Bush says, "You can get it all back. All you have to do is change your vote."
"I'm not changing my vote," Villalobos replies.
"Well, I'm going to run a candidate against you," Bush hisses. "And you're going to lose."
"I'd rather lose," Villalobos fires back before turning around and walking out.
That's how Villalobos, now out of elective politics, remembers the last time he and Bush spoke. "It was very unpleasant," he says. "He was never my boss... but he acted like he was."
Bush followed through on his threat, propping up a ringer candidate whose campaign received $6 million from well-heeled "Jeb!" donors. But Villalobos squeaked out a win in that race and continued in the state Senate another four years before moving into private practice as a lawyer and political consultant.
New Times is revisiting the ex-governor's falling-out with Villalobos, as well as other instances in which Bush retaliated against his enemies. It's an ugly side of Jeb that has more recently popped up in everything from Twitter beefs with Donald Trump to attacks on his onetime protégé, Marco Rubio. There's a petty vindictiveness that his sagging presidential campaign wants voters to forget as he tries to convince conservative voters across America that he's not a stiff.
Via email, Bush campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell acknowledged receiving New Times' list of questions for her boss. However, she did not provide any answers after repeated followup requests for comment.
"Jeb builds consensus only when you agree with him 100 percent of the time," Villalobos says. "We live in America. He needs to respect others' points of view whether he likes them or not."
One summer afternoon in 1992, more than a decade before that confrontation in the capital, Alex Villalobos walked into the marble-tiled lobby of the swanky Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables. He was there to meet the most important Republican in Florida, Jeb Bush.
At the time, Villalobos was a 28-year-old private attorney who had spent his first years out of law school working as a state prosecutor. And he had his sights set on a newly drawn state House seat. He had recently changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican — and a family friend had set up the meeting. During their powwow, Villalobos showed Bush his blank petition to gather signatures from Republican voters to get on the ballot.
Bush, then Florida chairman for his father President George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign, quickly agreed to be the first Republican to sign his petition. "I was surprised," Villalobos says, reflecting on the 23-year-old memory. "Here I am a Republican for only two weeks, and he is welcoming me with open arms."
Indeed, Villalobos seemed destined for life as a Democrat. Born in Miami in 1963, he has political roots that date back four generations. His great-grandfather, Plutarco Villalobos, served as Cuba's treasurer in the 1930s. His grandfather, José "Lolo" Villalobos, was mayor of Guanabacoa, Cuba, for 22 years, beginning in 1940.
Villalobos (right) in 2008 with then-Gov. Charlie Crist and state Rep. Julio Robaina.
In the late '70s and '80s, a decade after Lolo and his family had arrived in Miami, Villalobos' grandfather worked as an assistant to then-Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, a Democrat. A few years later, Lolo held a similar job with another Democrat, Metro-Dade Commissioner Bruce Kaplan. Villalobos' dad, also named José, is a well-regarded Miami attorney who led Democratic Party voter registration drives in the '80s. One of his closest friends is former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
Alex followed in their footsteps, says his dad, José. He says his son was a very serious boy growing up. "In elementary school, he was student council president. In high school, he insisted on getting a job so he could pay for his own gas and car insurance."
After graduating from Coral Park Senior High, Alex earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Miami. During his college years from 1982 to 1985, he worked as an aide in the Miami office of Lawton Chiles, at the time a U.S. senator. The relationship became friendly. Chiles was among the guests when Villalobos married his wife, Barbara, in Miami in May 1985.
For the next four years, Villalobos lived in Tallahassee, where he earned his law degree from Florida State University and subsequently took a job as an assistant state attorney. He returned to Miami in 1989 and worked for Chiles' gubernatorial campaign (Chiles defeated incumbent Bob Martinez) before deciding he was ready to run for state representative.
But Miami-Dade Democratic Party leaders rejected him. "They told me: 'We love you, your parents, and your granddad, but you are not next in line,'?" Villalobos recalls. "They said, 'You gotta wait your turn.'?"
The following day, he became a Republican. Villalobos says the move didn't require much soul-searching. "I wanted to run," he says. "I didn't want to wait."
José Villalobos says he had no problem with his son's decision. "I was impressed that he had the courage to tell me he was going to run as a Republican. He was demonstrating his own identity."
After Jeb and many others signed his election petition, Villalobos beat Esteban Bovo (who would later be elected Miami-Dade County commissioner) in the 1992 primary. He didn't have a Democratic opponent, so he was soon on his way back to Tallahassee, this time as a state legislator.
Among his first friends was freshman state Rep. Lesley "Les" Miller Jr., a Democrat from St. Petersburg. "Democrats controlled the House, but you didn't have any bitterness between the two parties," recalls Miller, who left the Legislature in 2006 and is now a Hillsborough County commissioner. "Alex and I had a great relationship."
Villalobos says then-state House Republican James King, who became a mentor, gave him and other freshmen advice that stuck: "Jim told us we would never be asked to vote against our district."
In 2000, Villalobos moved into the more exclusive state Senate, where he represented Kendall, Pinecrest, and surrounding areas. During his first five runs, which encompassed 14 years in the House and Senate, Villalobos never drew a challenger. He was a popular moderate. During his 1996, 2000, 2002, and 2006 campaigns, he raised a total of $1 million, according to Florida campaign finance records. The most he ever garnered in a single campaign was $653,171 in 2006, the year Bush came gunning for him.
In 1996, he sponsored the Jimmy Ryce Act, cracking down on sexual predators, and in 2001, he proposed giving inmates access to DNA tests to prove their innocence, which has resulted in cases against wrongly convicted Floridians being overturned. Bush signed both measures into law.
Villalobos crossed the party divide, says Steve Geller, a Democratic state representative and senator from 1998 to 2008. "Alex is a really smart, moderate guy," he says. "He always wanted to protect the power and authority of the Senate, as opposed to someone who would just roll over for the governor."
A dozen television and newspaper journalists crammed into the reception area of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan's office in Tallahassee's new Capitol building. State Sen. Kendrick Meek from Miami and Rep. Tony Hill from Jacksonville had stationed themselves on a striped sofa and refused to leave.
On January 18, 2000, one year into Jeb Bush's first term, the Democratic African-American legislators took a stand against the governor's One Florida initiative, a bold move eliminating affirmative action in state hiring, contracts, and university admissions. The 20 members of the Legislature's black caucus were outraged that Bush hadn't consulted them before issuing his November executive order.
Meek and Hill occupied Brogan's office overnight, refusing to leave until the governor met their demands to end One Florida.
Annoyed by the unwanted media attention, Florida's Republican head honcho was caught on camera lashing out at reporters and his staff. According to a Miami Herald account of the incident, the video showed Bush admonishing his press spokesman, Justin Sayfie: "Your life's gonna be a living hell. Kick their asses out."
Bush told gathered reporters that Meek and Hill would not change his mind: "We're doing the people's work, and I'm not going to let anybody, for any reason, stop us from doing that."
More than 100 demonstrators, including white and black Democratic legislators, stood vigil outside the governor's office while Meek and Hill were inside. Twenty-four hours later, the pair ended their sit-in when Bush agreed to hold public hearings to gather input and recommendations before the state Board of Regents voted on key parts of the university portion of One Florida.
The sit-in provided an early glimpse into Bush's volatile temper and uncooperative governing style, says Les Miller, the Hillsborough County Democrat who was part of Villalobos' freshman class. "It's his way or no way," Miller recalls. "His retaliation always came during the budgetary process. If you were a Democrat and black, you can bet your bottom dollar he was going to veto anything you put in the budget."
For instance, Bush killed $500,000 that Miller had requested in 2000 for a job-training program for underprivileged residents of Sarasota, Polk, Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Manatee counties. The governor also vetoed $200,000 that Miller requested for a health clinic serving impoverished rural residents in Manatee and for an Alzheimer's facility in Ybor City.
"There was no rhyme or reason for it other than [the requests were] coming from Democrats who went against him on One Florida... the voucher system, and small class size," Miller says. "We opposed him, and he retaliated against us."
Bush was equally dismissive of dissenting Republicans. Consider the case of Nancy Argenziano, a former state representative and senator from Crystal River (who left the GOP in 2011). In 2003, Argenziano, along with 11 other Republicans, voted against a bill that gave Bush the power to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a St. Petersburg woman with irreparable brain damage whose husband, Michael, had fought for seven years to take her off life support. The bill nevertheless passed into law, and Bush ordered Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted, keeping her alive for close to another two years. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately struck down the law as unconstitutional.
"There were times he raised his voice at me," Argenziano says. "I raised my voice right back at him. I once asked him if he ever got tired of people telling him yes all the time."
In 2006, Argenziano again drew Bush's ire when she publicly admonished him for urging Republican constituents to ask state senators to support a bill that dramatically limited damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. "Anybody on the inside knew Jeb had a temperament that could be vindictive," Argenziano says. "If you didn't agree with Jeb, you were on his shit list."
An undertone of this animosity surfaced in an email Bush sent to Argenziano in May 2006 when she inquired about $50,000 he vetoed for a Citrus County organization that teaches blind people to build furniture. When she claimed a Bush staffer said her sponsorship of the bill would make it less likely he would rescind the veto, the governor responded, "The fact that you sponsored the line item won't matter to me. None of your comments in the press will matter. None of your votes will matter."
Now retired from politics, Argenziano says she doesn't hold any grudges against Bush. She even compliments him: "Of all the Republican candidates, he is the most intelligent. He is really the cream of that crop."
It's Bush's abrasive personality that gets in his way, she says. "When I vote for president, I don't want someone who is going to throw a tantrum when it doesn't go his way. His vindictiveness and his temperament are his pitfalls."
Villalobos: "Jeb needs to respect others' points of view whether he likes them or not."
Courtesy of Alex Villalobos
During the 2005 legislative session, Bush began having doubts about Villalobos' loyalty to the party that had paved the state senator's political path. After all, it was Bush who placed the first signature on Villalobos' petition to get on the ballot 13 years earlier. Now Villalobos had risen to the rank of Senate majority leader and had gathered enough pledge cards from his colleagues to become that chamber's president in 2008.
Bush was on a mission to undo a 2002 constitutional amendment limiting the number of students in a public school classroom to 28. Though the measure had been overwhelmingly approved by state voters, Bush wanted it gone."He was like, 'We can't afford it, the sky is going to fall, and the state is going to sink,'?" Villalobos recalls. "When the session started, Jeb told us: 'We're going to undo it.'?"
Villalobos refused to go along. For one, his wife is a public-school teacher. Second, a majority of voters in his district had cast ballots in favor of the small-class amendment. "I am the man I am today because of public school education," he says. "Why we have to pick on teachers is something no one has ever explained to me."
Bush requested the House and Senate put a measure on the 2006 ballot to repeal the mandate. In the months leading up to the Senate's vote, Bush badgered Villalobos. During one conversation, Villalobos recollects, he asked the governor how placing 50 kids in a classroom was better than limiting the number to 28. "Conservative principles," Bush allegedly replied. "You are the majority leader. You have to vote with me."
Villalobos said he reminded Bush that he lived in Miami, where most of the overcrowding occurs. "Yeah, but I represent the entire state," the governor allegedly said.
"Well, I represent Kendall, where voters want the small-class-size amendment," Villalobos said. "And Jim King once told me I would never have to vote against my district."
He and Bush went back and forth several times on the issue, Villalobos says. "He kept telling me that I didn't understand," Villalobos remembers. "Jeb told me that I had to vote his way."
In early May 2005, Villalobos voted against putting the repeal on the ballot. He was the swing vote. The measure died.
As revenge, Villalobos contends, Bush vetoed nearly $1 million for spinal cord research at the University of Miami, which the senator had championed. Instead, the governor granted the project only $500,000. Bush slashed the funding even though he had included the money in the proposed budget at the beginning of the session. In prior years, he had authorized nearly $4 million for UM's spinal cord research.
Villalobos said Bush didn't have a valid reason for cutting the funds.
Bush denied the vetoes were retaliation, asserting the projects were not vetted by state agencies and did not meet a statewide goal. "We strive to make this process out of principle,'' Bush told the Miami Herald. "There's nothing punitive to what we do.''
Later that summer, Villalobos traveled to New York City to attend a state Senate fundraiser. George Steinbrenner, then owner of the New York Yankees, hosted the fete in his Yankee Stadium suite.
At the party, Ken Pruitt, a Fort Pierce Republican who at the time chaired the Senate rules committee, pulled aside Villalobos, who remembers the conversation this way: "The governor is really mad at you," Pruitt said. "You took on the governor, and nobody has beaten him."
"I don't look at it as I beat the governor," Villalobos replied.
"Well, that is how he looks at it," said Pruitt, who left office in 2009. He did not respond to three phone messages over one week, as well as an emailed list of questions, seeking comment for this story.
A few minutes later, Jim King, the outgoing Senate president, approached Villalobos. King, who passed away in 2009, issued another warning: "Alex, you are David, and he is Goliath. You should think about changing your vote."
"Jim, what happened to 'Don't vote against your district?'?" Villalobos shot back. "You're the one who told me that."
"The governor is very vindictive," King replied. "He doesn't like to lose."
"I said, 'What can he do to me?'?" Villalobos recalls. "Famous last words."
Fast-forward to the final days of the 2006 legislative session, when both state bodies were considering the vote on repeal of the class-size amendment as well as making school vouchers part of the state constitution.
Villalobos, who opposed both measures, says Bush called him into a face-to-face meeting. He doesn't remember specifics, only that it didn't end well. "Unless you change the funding formula to make it fair for Miami-Dade, I am not voting against my district," Villalobos recalls telling Bush. "He had a conniption. We exchanged words."
On April 29, 2006, Villalobos and five moderate Republicans teamed up with Senate Democrats to defeat the class-size amendment vote. A few days later, Villalobos was in the Senate chamber for the scheduled vote on the vouchers when Senate President Tom Lee, a Bush acolyte who rarely questioned the governor, called Villalobos to the front.
"The governor is on the phone," Lee allegedly said. "He wants to talk to you."
Villalobos took the call in the Senate president's stately office, which was connected to the Senate chamber. Lying next to the phone was a copy of Christine Todd Whitman's 2005 book, It's My Party Too. Whitman was the Republican governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 whose memoir warns about her party being hijacked by right-wing fundamentalists.
"I thought, This has got to be an omen," Villalobos says. "We had a very animated conversation. He yelled at me and said I was going to regret my decision. I actually hung up on him."
When he returned to the Senate floor, Villalobos voted no.
"I don't know why you did this," Lee allegedly told Villalobos. "The governor is livid. This is going to be terrible for your career." Like so many others, Lee repeatedly declined to comment about Villalobos. Lee's spokeswoman, Jennifer Wilson, said he was too busy to answer questions.
The morning after the Senate vote against vouchers, Villalobos fished his office keys from his pants pocket to open the door. But the key didn't work. "I called up the sergeant at arms and asked him what's up," Villalobos recalls. "He apologized that he was just following orders and took me to my new office."
The sergeant led him to another, much smaller room on the same floor. Unlike his majority leader suite, the new space didn't have a separate room for his legislative aide. But it had a broom closet. "I'm not going to put my aide there," Villalobos said. "So I took the closet. My desk was a little folding TV table."
A few hours later, Bush told him he would run a candidate against him in the upcoming primary. Seeing Villalobos stripped of his majority leadership, ending his Senate presidency bid, and exiling him to the lower rungs of the Senate chamber wasn't enough. Running him out of elected office was Bush's ultimate goal.
To do his dirty work, the governor enlisted Frank Bolaños — a BellSouth employee whom Bush had appointed to the Miami-Dade County School Board in 2001 — to run in the 2006 Republican primary. According to a May 2006 Tampa Bay Times article, Bush flew from Tallahassee to Miami to meet with Bolaños for a 30-minute powwow less than a week after the school board member announced he was running. Bush's then-press secretary Alia Faraj told Times reporters that her boss' get-together with Bolaños had nothing to do with the election. She claimed the two men were simply having a general conversation about "education."
But Bush followed up the meeting by sending a fundraising letter in June to donors hailing Bolaños as "a conservative who believes in lower taxes and smaller government" and "a true Republican we can trust." He closed the missive by noting that his candidate's opponent — whom Bush identified only as the "incumbent" — had "abandoned our party's principles and lost his way."
Bush, of course, was referring to Villalobos. "I was livid," Villalobos says. "I couldn't believed I was being punished for voting against him once out of 99 times."
Jeb Bush pulled out all stops to get revenge on Villalobos.
Photo by Michael Vadon/Wiki Commons
Bolaños' campaign raised more than $200,000 three weeks into his candidacy, compared to $80,000 Villalobos had collected in three months. The names on Bolaños' finance committee read like a who's who of Bush apostles: real-estate developer Sergio Pino, former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, Fort Lauderdale cardiologist Zachariah Zachariah, and Jason Unger, a Tallahassee lobbyist whose wife had served as a Bush campaign manager in 2002.
Outside groups also bankrolled campaign attacks against Villalobos. Two of Pino's development firms gave $130,000 to the governor's Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit think tank that employed staffers from Bush's 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial races. The foundation produced mailers depicting Villalobos morphing into Hillary Clinton and placing him side-by-side with serial killer Ted Bundy.
Bush-affiliated donors spent hundreds of thousands on TV ads to trash Villalobos. Bush himself appeared in most of them, telling voters in English and Spanish to go with Bolaños.
Then there was the guy in the chicken suit hired to harass Villalobos on the campaign trail after he failed to agree to a debate with Bolaños. Nicknamed "Demolobos," the chicken mascot was reminiscent of a similar stunt Russians pulled during the campaign of President Boris Yeltsin. The name "Demolobos" was a snarky way of portraying Villalobos as a closet Democrat.
"A bunch of people rushed the chicken because they thought they could get Pollo Tropical coupons," Villalobos told the Miami Herald at the time.
Argenziano, one of the few Republicans who stuck by Villalobos, said Bush orchestrated a multimillion-dollar smear campaign to unseat Villalobos. "They wanted to slash Alex's throat," she says.
It was the toughest test of character Villalobos had ever faced. "I just decided to campaign as hard as I could," he says. "My wife, daughter, and I spent the whole summer walking. The one good thing is it brought us closer together."
On September 5, 2006, Villalobos eked out a win over his opponent by 426 votes. "Winning was very sweet," he says.
Bush not only failed to defeat his nemesis but also lost some Republican voters who did not appreciate the onslaught. In thousands of emails Bush released prior to officially announcing his presidential bid in June, New Times found messages from constituents who denounced his involvement in Villalobos' race.
The day after the primary election, Kendall resident Robert Mende wrote, "Sad day for Florida Republicans that you tried to punish a fellow Republican just because he did not vote with you 100 percent. You took a swing and missed!"
Another message, from a Miami man named Alfonso, read, "Mr. Jeb Bush... I find your actions very, very unprofessional, unethical, and certainly not one befitting a governor and brother of the US pres. You are the one dividing the Republican Party."
Standing in the kitchen of his rustic house in Pinecrest, Villalobos whips up a couple of cups of café con leche, made the way his grandmother taught him. Dressed in a blue-and-pink checkered dress shirt and dark-gray slacks, he takes a seat at the kitchen table.
The first few months after the election, he recalls, he continued to stew. "I needed to put this behind me and move on," he says. "I took on the attitude that I am supposed to be doing what the people who voted for me want me to do and not what a bunch of people in Tallahassee want."
He said his last four years in office turned out to be the best of his political career. For starters, Jeb was no longer in the state capital after leaving office in November 2006. "When I got back to Tallahassee, there were people who worked for Jeb who patted me on the back," Villalobos remembers. "They told me: 'Good job.'?"
Before leaving in 2010 because of term limits, Villalobos chaired the judiciary and rules committees. Coincidentally, the candidate who won his vacated seat is Anitere Flores, a former state representative who briefly worked as Bush's education policy chief.
After leaving office, Villalobos went into private law practice representing clients affected by pending bills during the legislative session. "I will determine what a bill is about," he says. "I keep track of bills for different people and clients. I tell them what is in it, what is going on, and when it is up. I am effective by finding sneaky stuff and exposing it."
Meanwhile, Bush is no longer the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. He's been supplanted by Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and even his former protégé, Marco Rubio. In recent weeks, Bush's campaign and his Right to Rise super PAC have ramped up the Rubio attacks.
On November 9, the New York Times reported that Mike Murphy, Right to Rise's chief strategist, is willing to spend as much as $20 million of the super PAC's $108 million haul to tear down Rubio. Already, the group has cut a video that deems the U.S. senator unelectable as president because of his hard-line stance against abortion. Bush even publicly refused to shake Rubio's hand during a recent debate.
Villalobos says Bush hasn't learned that all the money and name recognition in the world can't buy an election. Plus, Republican voters are tired of establishment candidates who don't listen to the people. "When you add up [the poll numbers for] Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, you have more than 51 percent," Villalobos says. "The majority of Republicans are disgusted with the party. They want to see a different direction."