By Will Weissert
AUSTIN — George P. Bush’s new job as Texas land commissioner has nothing to do with abortion, and it lacks any authority to funnel public dollars to private schools. But after barely 30 days in office, he’s already headlined high-profile rallies on both issues.
The 38-year-old has a political surname far better known than his obscure office, which administers Texas’ vast public lands and mineral rights. Though he insists he’s not yet eying any moves up Texas’ political ladder, the newest Bush in politics has wasted no time becoming a leading voice for top conservative causes and seizing the spotlight in a state already full of powerful Republicans.
“He’s a rising star in our state and nationally,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist based in Austin. “He’s going to be in very high demand this year. They’re going to have to get good at saying no.”
His grandfather and an uncle are former presidents.
In the past, the land commissioner’s post has led to loftier political heights in Texas. David
Dewhurst served in it before his 12 years as lieutenant governor, which ended last month. Bush’s more immediate goal might be to buoy his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, if he seeks the White House in 2016.
The son could help the father build a political beachhead in Texas, where Jeb Bush’s brother and George P. Bush’s uncle, George W. Bush, served as governor from 1995 until becoming president in 2000. It’s also a state where Jeb Bush may have to battle two Texans with probable presidential designs: former Gov. Rick Perry and tea party-backed Sen. Ted Cruz. Another likely GOP candidate, Sen. Rand Paul, represents Kentucky but grew up in Texas.
George P. Bush has “always been viewed as inevitable for a national position, and I think he’s acted deliberately and very astutely in everything he’s done,” said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, which has collected millions of dollars from the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers and seeks to promote conservative values to Hispanics nationwide. He’s been Bush’s friend for 15 years.
Bush would not comment about his future ambitions, but said no one should be surprised by the early public events he’s chosen.
“These conservative ideals — being pro-life and promoting school choice — are a matter of principle for me,” Bush said in a statement emailed by spokesman J.R. Hernandez. “And just as I did during my campaign, I will continue to advocate on behalf of these deeply held values.”
Still, he’s been a part of national Republican campaigns since before he hit puberty. At age 12, Bush opened the party’s 1988 convention by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. That was where grandfather George H.W. Bush accepted the party’s presidential nomination. He addressed subsequent GOP conventions in 1992, 2000 and 2004.
In addition to campaigning around the country, Bush went to Mexico in 2004 to promote his uncle’s presidential re-election among expatriate Americans. Indeed, wooing Hispanic voters is where Bush could pack the biggest political punch: His mother, Columba, was born in Mexico, and he speaks fluent Spanish.
Hispanics make up about 35 percent of residents in Texas, where a Democrat has not won statewide office since 1994. Bush carried virtually every demographic against only token opposition in the land commissioner’s race. New Gov. Greg Abbott captured only about a third of the Hispanic vote in his otherwise overwhelming November victory, according to exit polling conducted by The Associated Press.
George W. Bush remains the top Republican vote-getter among Hispanic Texans. His re-election campaign for governor in 1998 got as much as 49 percent of the bloc’s vote, according to some exit polling.
“I think it goes beyond the fact that he looks like us,” Garza said of George P. Bush. “Very much like George W. Bush, he is very comfortable in a Latino environment.”
Bush mixed English and Spanish when addressing hundreds of students and activists Friday on the steps of the Texas Capitol. He urged state lawmakers to approve voucher programs that would allow parents to remove their children from public school and get taxpayer funding for private and religious alternatives.
Bush’s office oversees the state’s Permanent School Fund, which gets proceeds from leasing mineral rights for oil and natural gas exploration. The fund helps purchase classroom materials and indirectly covers some other costs for public school districts.
But his first public appearance as land commissioner the previous weekend came at an anti-abortion rally where 1,500 people thronged the same Capitol grounds. Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, which organized the event, said Bush’s team approached his group “and asked if there was some way he could help.”