After Bush was elected governor in 1994, it did not take long for his views on Hispanics and on immigration to mark him as different than many Republican colleagues.
In California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187 to deny public services to illegal immigrants. The initiative passed overwhelmingly amid rising public anger over the influx of Mexicans seeking jobs on farms and in other industries. The issue was credited with helping Wilson secure a resounding reelection, which put him in a prime spot to compete for the GOP presidential nomination.
But a scene that unfolded at a governors conference in Williamsburg, Va., left many political leaders stunned. Rather than applaud Wilson’s support of Proposition 187 as a deft move, Bush told Wilson to his face—and in front of other governors—that it was a disaster.
“He really minced no words,” recalled former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who witnessed the exchange. “He told Wilson, ‘You’re wrong,’ and that it was . . . a catastrophic position. He was very clear. He felt that Wilson had made the issue one where it had become an anti-Hispanic issue rather than a solution to illegal immigration.”
Bush’s willingness as a rookie governor to confront Wilson “made a very powerful impression and an early impression on other governors,” Engler said.
The exchange was not covered by the media, and aides do not recall the details—but Engler and Wilson remember it clearly. “I was disappointed,” Wilson said in a recent interview.
The then-Texas governor’s careful attention to the immigration issue did not stop with his election. As the 1996 presidential race began to unfold, Bush openly challenged Pat Buchanan, who was campaigning on an anti-immigration, anti-trade platform.
“No Cheap Shots at Mexico, Please,” was the headline of an August 1995 New York Times op-ed written by Bush. He cautioned that campaign “discussion on immigration and Mexico can turn ugly and destructive very quickly.”
“I don’t want anybody, any race, to be used as a political issue,” Bush said at a news conference, timed to answer a Buchanan appearance in Texas.
By 1998, Bush proved that a Republican could put the Latino vote in play, winning about 50% of that constituency in Texas as he was reelected governor by a landslide. Among his supporters was Adela Gonzalez, who with about a dozen friends formed the group Amigas de Bush. A housekeeper in El Paso, Gonzalez said she became a U.S. citizen about 10 years ago.
As governor, Bush rarely faced substantive policy questions related to immigration. But one issue showed that, despite his personal ties to Latinos and immigrants, he also viewed immigration through the lens of politics.
Over the objections of some conservatives, the Texas Legislature restored healthcare benefits to thousands of children of noncitizens who were to be cut off after changes to federal welfare law.
The measure reached Bush’s desk as he was planning his 2000 campaign for president and facing a competitive primary. Bush viewed the legislation with caution, hedging until the last minute on whether he would sign.
Bush went on to make personalized outreach to Latinos a trademark of both of his presidential campaigns. And it paid dividends with voters who had long leaned Democratic.
Bush won 40% of Latinos in 2004—compared with the 21% GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole won in 1996, after the passage of Proposition 187.
During the 2000 election, Bush previewed a campaign video from ad-maker Lionel Sosa that used emotion-laden themes to woo Latinos.
As he watched, Sosa recalled, Bush’s face lighted up. “How much do you need for this?” Bush asked as the two men sat with Rove in the governor’s mansion in Texas, Sosa said.
Sosa replied that it would take $3 million. According to the ad-maker, Bush then turned to Rove, saying: “Give him five.”
Four years later, Sosa produced a variation of that video for the 2004 campaign that was mailed to Latino voters across the country.
The video includes images that would probably rile those who today are calling for the most restrictive immigration laws. At one point, Bush is shown waving a Mexican flag. The footage was shot, Sosa said, during a Mexican Independence Day parade in San Antonio in 1998, when Bush was running for reelection as governor.
The five-minute video, narrated by Bush, opens with an image of him fishing on his property near Crawford, Texas, as he essentially described millions of Americans who populate his home state as the true foreigners in someone else’s native land.
“About 15 years before the Civil War, much of the American West was northern Mexico,” Bush says in the video. “The people who lived there weren’t called Latinos or Hispanics. They were Mexican citizens, until all that land became part of the United States.
“After that, many of them were treated as foreigners in their own land,” Bush adds.
He says the “Latino spirit” was fueled by “strong conservative values” of family, a strong work ethic, faith in God, patriotism and personal responsibility. “These values are my values,” Bush says. “I live by them, and I lead by them.”
As Bush speaks in the video, the background music—a Latin beat—grows louder. The president is pictured waving the Mexican flag, hugging a Latino woman, and then holding a Latino baby.
Political strategists in both parties said the video illustrated how Bush, unlike other Republicans, had forged a personal relationship with Latino voters largely on his ability to convey empathy and invite them into his party.