Gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush on Wednesday promised Pasco Republicans to fight for tougher and longer prison sentences for criminals and end welfare as we know it.
Making his third campaign swing through Pasco, the former president's son assured local Republicans he could deliver massive changes in government without additional taxes. The state can add more than 50,000 prison beds and pull out of the federal government's chief welfare program without a penny of additional taxes, Bush said.
"We need to advocate and implement fundamental changes in our education system and our welfare system. We need to prioritize our spending so that public safety has the highest priority. We need to regain back control of our own lives and take it away from government," he told a crowd of roughly 70 supporters gathered at a Port Richey restaurant.
He is expected to face at least four major Republican candidates in a primary, but Bush already has lined up strong support from the conservative wing of Pasco's GOP.
Former state Rep. John Renke serves as his local campaign chairman, County Commissioner Ed Collins sports a "Jeb!" bumper sticker on his Lincoln, and Mike Fasano has boosted Bush's fund raising through the more than 600-member West Pasco Republican Club that Fasano leads.
"He is a non-bureaucrat. I think it's time we elect somebody to Tallahassee who does not have prior experience, if you will, as a bureaucrat," Fasano said.
Bush, 41, moved to Miami in 1981 and until last year headed a commercial real estate firm. He also served as Secretary of Commerce in 1987 and 1988 under Gov. Bob Martinez.
Local Republican leaders are not united behind Bush at this stage, however. Superintendent of Schools Tom Weightman, for instance, supports Secretary of State Jim Smith, whom he calls a moderate with the best chance of unseating Gov. Lawton Chiles.
"He doesn't take extremist views. He's practical, and he doesn't try to snow people," Weightman said of Smith. "He doesn't try to tell people that things can be done without paying for them."
Republican County Commission Chairman Ann Hildebrand said she has not committed to any candidate yet, but she also sees Smith as a strong candidate.
Two other Republican candidates are Florida Senate President Ander Crenshaw and Tallahassee lawyer Ken Connor. Another high-profile Republican, Florida Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, is also expected to run.
Bush's themes of less government, tougher punishment for criminals and no new taxes clearly appealed to the crowd attending his fund-raiser at the Seaport Inn on Wednesday. They applauded his calls for no more cable TV in prison, for tougher sentences for juvenile felons and for his calls to put welfare recipients to work.
Bush considers crime the biggest crisis facing Florida. He wants to add more than 50,000 prison beds, pass a constitutional amendment requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
His education plan involves all but abolishing the Department of Education, lopping out more than 2,000 administrative jobs and leaving no more than 50 administrators to oversee the state's education system. The savings would be transferred to local school boards.
His welfare plan would pull the state out of the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The program provides about $450-million a year to Florida, much of it to single mothers raising kids. In its place, Bush supports a program that would require parents to promise not to use drugs, to accept most job offers and receive no additional support if they have more children. The state can support his "Phoenix Project" plan with what it spends on welfare.