While governor of Florida, Jeb Bush delivered a lucrative tax break to subsidize an evangelical group’s efforts to block Internet users from learning about homosexuality or accessing pornography. The taxpayer money was directed to a company owned by the American Family Association (AFA), a prominent grass-roots organization representing a social conservative base that could prove pivotal in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.
A Quinnipiac poll out this week shows Bush struggling to gain ground with that base in Iowa, the state that hosts the nation’s first presidential caucus. In recent weeks, Bush has sought to burnish his social conservative credentials: He has said he does not regret intervening in the Terri Schiavo family case, trumpeted his support for “traditional marriage” and, perhaps most controversially, stood with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in defense of a law that critics say legalized discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. [After a public outcry, Pence later signed a second law to "fix" the initial law.]
Meanwhile, those who know Bush from his time as governor have been touting his conservative record in Florida. That record is replete with support for the religious right’s causes, and his subsidy for the AFA exemplifies both his social conservatism -- and the perils it may present in a general election.
$600,000 Tax Subsidy
It was May 2001, only a few years after a hot-button debate over congressional legislation aiming to censor the Internet of indecent content. Bush’s administration and Florida county officials agreed to award a $600,000 tax subsidy package to Bsafe Online, a subsidiary of the AFA. That company produced Web filter technology to prevent Internet users from seeing pornography or information about homosexual relationships or transgender identities.
“I welcome this high-tech, pro-family business to Florida,” Bush said in a news release. “As the Internet continues to influence our daily lives, parents have an increasingly difficult time monitoring what their children are exposed to on the computer. BsafeOnline.com is a great example of how the private sector can assist families to protect their children from aspects of the Internet which they deem negative.”
At the time, AFA was leading a boycott against the Walt Disney Co. for promoting the “gay agenda” and hosting “Gay Days” at its theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Liberal activists called on Bush to reverse his support for the AFA-backed company, BSafe, accusing the AFA of bigotry, recently released emails show. The organization was later labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Bush stood with social conservatives then, saying he would maintain the funding after he met with representatives from the company. His officials publicly defended the subsidy, telling the Associated Press: "The money was given because Bsafe Online provides technology that promotes the need to protect children from pornography on the Web.”
Advisers for Bush did not respond to questions from IBTimes. A spokesperson for the AFA denied an interview request, saying the organization “is unavailable to speak on this particular topic.”
In 2005, Bush faced criticism from the same AFA he helped subsidize -- the group would slam him for supporting an investment in a movie rental company that distributed pornography. And leaders of the religious right have lately questioned Bush’s commitment to their agenda. Since announcing he may run for president, Bush has sought to distance himself from some of his own past statements on homosexuality. In January, he disavowed an editorial he wrote in which he argued against creating “special legal protection” for “sodomy.” A Bush spokesperson told BuzzFeed the editorial “does not reflect Gov. Bush’s views now.”
But liberal activists cite Bush’s support for group’s Web filter as proof that he remains too close to social conservatives.
"That Jeb Bush gave taxpayer money to a subsidiary of a hate group whose founder has compared homosexuality to theft and murder and has claimed that gay people target children speaks volumes about who Bush is as an elected official,” said Michael Keegan of the liberal activist group People for the American Way. “If there was any question about his extremism before, this eliminates any shred of doubt.”