This week, Florida became the 36th state to allow same-sex marriage. The Sunshine State has come a long way in the two decades since Jeb Bush declared that he didn’t want “sodomy” to have “the same constitutional status as race and religion.”Like many Americans—but few Republican presidential candidates—the former Florida governor has evolved on the issue. Confronted with the reality of legalization, Bush expressed “respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue.”The one-time conservative culture warrior has become more of a conciliator, and a new treasure trove of emails from his time in Tallahassee show then-Gov. Bush busy engaging constituents on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate ahead of the 2004 presidential election.To those who agreed with him, Bush pledged that the law against same-sex marriage would remain intact. To his critics, he explained—sometimes at painful length—his reasoning against it.But perhaps most important, these emails provide a bridge from the potential presidential contender’s past to his present and future.Think back to the Bush-Kerry race of 2004, the Thrilla in Vanilla. Gay marriage was the hot-button fight on the left and right.While the White House urged support for a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage and several states had their own bans on the ballot, Massachusetts edged closer to legalizing gay marriage, and same-sex marriage licenses were issued in San Francisco that February.
Meanwhile, in Florida, Bush was flooded with questions about whether gay marriage could possibly come to the Sunshine State. His answer: Not on my watch.
“I do not support gay marriages being recognized in Florida,” he wrote Andrew Walther of Sanford. “That is the law and it will stay that way.”
“Please, please do not permit this to happen here in Florida,” wrote Cris K. Smith of East Polk County. “We here in Florida do not want to be in the same boat as California. I believe that this is going to spread like wild fire. Let’s put out the fire before it has a chance to start.” A few days later, Bush replied, “We will uphold the law in Florida.”
But the governor’s response to a man who disagreed with him on the issue perhaps revealed the most about where his position was going in the future.
That man was Xavier Cortada, a gay man who wrote of his frustration that he and his partner of eight years were unable to marry. Cortada wrote that he felt “particularly denied and particularly unequal” by the move to pass a constitutional amendment against gay marriage on the federal level. “I feel suffocated—living in a society where liberty evaporates with every attack on people who happen to be gay—and I see it can only get worse as this debate rages on,” he wrote.
Bush responded about a month later. “Thank you for writing and I apologize for not responding earlier. The tyranny of the present has gotten me!” Bush wrote. “I am sensitive to your point of view but respectfully disagree. If there is discrimination, there are remedies. The cases of violence against gay and lesbians are unconscionable and the laws in Florida exist to bring justice.”
Bush then suggested that Cortada and his partner could be “made more permanent through contractual obligations that set forth asset disposition and other issues” but added that he did not believe their relationship “should be afforded the same status in the law as a man and a woman agreeing to marraige [sic].”
“The institution of marraige [sic] is under attack in our society and it needs to be strengthened,” Bush wrote. “This does not have to be at the expense of other kinds of relationships but in support of the most important institution in our society.”
But the tide was turning on this issue, an email from another constituent made clear. “I am a heterosexual conservative Republican that has voted for you and President Bush twice and now more than ever disappointed in both of you for your stand on the gay issue,” wrote Randy A. Sullivan. “Your stands appear to me as hatred for someone who is different from you and therefore you are willing to discriminate against them.”
Bush replied his position was “not based on hate or is it discriminatory… I have said that traditional marriage between a man and a woman should be protected in the Constitution if the courts rule that gays can marry.”
Later in the year, Bush stopped short of backing his brother’s call for a constitutional amendment when asked what he was “hearing as it relates to a constitutional amendment on the defense of marriage.”
“I don’t think the amendment is necessary since gay marriages aren’t legal in our state,” he wrote.
“My view would change if someone could prove to me that that our law is vulnerable to future court challenges. I don’t see it.” In a bit of foreshadowing, he repeated that opinion in November. “Our state already prohibits gay marriage,” he wrote. “Unless there is a court decision that changes our law, we are OK.”
It remains unclear whether the field of conservative candidates—and the Republican primary electorate—will force Bush back to somewhere closer to his 1994 self if he chooses to run for president.
But his answer to The Miami Herald, after the court struck down the Florida ban, seemed to point to a continued, albeit reluctant, evolution on the issue.
“The state decided. The people of the state decided,” he told the Herald. “But it’s been overturned by the courts, I guess.”