In 2001 Governor Jeb Bush very quietly removed a version of the Confederate Battle Flag from the row of flags outside the Florida Capitol. While in hindsight this might seem like an act of political courage, it is worth remembering Jeb Bush comes from a Connecticut Yankee family and into the mid 2000’s the majority of white rural voters in North Florida were supporting Democrats. Besides to their credit, Bush and his brother, President George W. Bush were far less into using the coded racist rhetoric than much of the GOP liberally employed in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
In 2002, Jeb Bush carried 54 counties in his landslide reelection victory over Democrat Bill McBride. Only 3 counties carried by McBride (Alachua, Broward and Palm Beach) were actually outside the heavily rural and conservative Second Congressional District. In that 2002 election McBride carried Jackson, Calhoun, Franklin, Liberty, Gadsden, Leon, Jefferson, Madison, Wakulla and Hamilton counties. These counties are some of the areas where sympathy for the Confederacy runs highest in the state and where many folks forefathers and mothers fought in the Civil War on the side of the south.
In 1996, Governor Chiles was asked by some African-American lawmakers led by Rep. Willie Logan to remove the flag. Chiles opted not to do anything about the issue, but again it would have been more difficult in those days for a Democrat in Florida to remove the flag. Chiles had needed rural votes to overcome Bush in the razor-tight 1994 election, and by punting those voters stuck with Bill Clinton in the 1996 Presidential election and didn’t ultimately stop voting for Democrats until recently.
Two years earlier, New York Republican Governor George Pataki had the Georgia flag pictured below removed from the hall of flags at the NY State Capitol in Albany. Pataki is running for President this year as well. Georgia eventually replaced its flag in 2002 under Governor Roy Barnes who was then upset in his effort for reelection. Barnes is the last Democrat to have been elected Governor of Georgia. Prior to his defeat the Republicans had not won the Governorship since Reconstruction ended.
Perhaps to some extent Bush deserves credit for his low key approach to flag removal. While I believe the majority of white Floridians that tied their ancestry to the Confederacy in 2001 were still Democrats and voting for Democrats at most level of Government, Bush didn’t exploit the issue the way he could have. Florida avoided the controversy Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia have had over the flag. Bush does not deserve all the credit for this, but a less capable leader probably would have bumbled her or his way into a political crisis and a public relations mess. For that we should be thankful as Floridians. We should also be thankful that the flag was removed.