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It's in with the new, the young, the Jeb

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Just a few steps from the state Capitol, one of the city's landmark restaurants recently added an item to the menu: the "Jeb" burger.

The 8-ounce patty, served with blackened spices and sauteed mushrooms, used to have a more generic name. But the new label paid off.

"Literally, the sales doubled," said Matthew Lippman, general manager of Andrew's Capital Grill.

The burger's newfound success makes perfect sense.

When Gov.-elect Jeb Bush takes the oath of office Tuesday in front of the Old Capitol, he will bring more than a change in direction for state government. With Republicans controlling the Legislature and the Governor's Mansion for the first time this century, the political culture of this town is reflecting the changes.

Gone (for the most part) are the old Democrats smoking cigars and sipping liquor at downtown bars. You're more likely to find an army of young Republicans drinking bottled light beer, debating college football and talking GOP politics.

Change is nothing new to the capital. When Gov. Bob Martinez took over in 1987, his people swarmed downtown Tallahassee wearing suspenders and snazzy ties. When Gov. Lawton Chiles arrived, plaid shirts and khaki pants were in.

Now comes the 45-year-old Bush.

Florida's new youthful governor comes with his own changes to this North Florida town in the woods, where finding sweet tea and collards is easier than finding the Cuban coffee Bush grew to love in Miami.

Now, there's a Cuban restaurant downtown. And a sushi and coffee bar. And growing numbers of young faces, many of them arriving from South Florida and other states for jobs in the administration.

"The folks I see that are the Bush people are for the most part youthful, preppy, young Republican true believers," says John French, 52, a longtime lobbyist and capital insider.

While the larger community continues to be dominated by registered Democrats and rank-and-file state workers (Bush did not even win Leon County in the November election), the smaller world of state government is GOP-dominated.

The influx includes 20- and 30-somethings. Some are Hispanic, some are Jewish, many are from Miami with connections to Bush and his family. They will work for Bush, or get jobs as lobbyists and lawyers. Many will work for state agencies, to be hired by Bush's crop of appointees, some of whom are themselves 30-somethings.

"It's kind of nice to have some people come up here now to work who are younger," said Jillian Inmon, 30, who moved to Tallahassee from Columbus, Ohio, to work as Bush's scheduler. "It's created a familial type of atmosphere. I definitely don't think it's an arrogance, but there is a new energy that we want to get some stuff done."

The new arrivals join the small group of Republican Party operatives _ mostly single, white men _ who helped engineer the revolution. Until now, the originals were merely a backdrop to their Democratic rivals who populated the governor's staff, the Legislature and the lobbying firms.

Now, like high schoolers who finally made it to their senior year, they're on top.

"I'm 39 years old, and I feel like I'm one of the oldest," said David Johnson, deputy executive director of the state GOP, who moved to town six years ago. "There's a lot of new, bright, eager Republicans who want to be a part of what Jeb campaigned on." To some, it's reminiscent of the youth culture the Clinton Administration brought to Washington in 1993.

Bar owners are happy to have them.

"They have disposable income," said Ron Saunders, a former Democratic lawmaker who now owns Sloppy Joe's, a Key West bar two blocks from the Capitol. "They have relatively stressful jobs. After work, they're ready to have a good time."

If the Chiles-ites wore plaid and khakis, it's not yet clear what the Bush folks will wear. The governor-elect often shows up in suits, but just as often wears casual button-down shirts and khaki pants.

"I remember when Republicans were upset that Clinton wore jeans in the White House," said Cory Tilley, Bush's 30-year-old press secretary, who moved to Tallahassee from Miami for the campaign and last week moved into a new townhouse. "I like the casual stuff. I don't think we dress any better (than Democrats).

"I don't have time to shop. Whatever I get for Christmas is what I get for the year."

While the Republicans of his father's era were seen as stiff and humorless, Bush is jocular and willing to take risks.

Last week, he appeared live on the morning show of Tallahassee's Wild 106 Top 40 rock station _ and enjoyed it. He uses phrases like, "That's cool," and has been known to sneak out of his office to grab a hamburger.

He feels more comfortable being called "Jeb" than a title.

"I'm not used to the Gov. This, Gov. That," Bush said last week. "I let people say it, I don't stop them. But if people call me Jeb, I'm certainly not offended."

Bush, who will bring his famous family to town for the inauguration, brings added cache because of national exposure. He and his brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, are in high demand on TV talk shows, though Jeb Bush so far has turned them down.

"When Ronald Reagan was president, we all wore our khaki pants and red and blue blazers," says Inmon. "With Jeb, I think there's a comparison with the energy that Bill Clinton brought to youth in Washington (in 1992). He went on Arsenio and the talk shows, and that's what you have with Jeb."

Then there's the music.

Bush will be celebrating his inauguration with music from pop artist Chaka Khan, who is sure to perform her famous I Feel for You at an inaugural fiesta in Miami today. And K.C. and the Sunshine Band will tell the Republicans to Shake Shake Shake Your Booty.

"I'm younger than previous governors recently. I believe my message was a more future-oriented, opportunity-oriented message that appeals to younger people," said Bush, who lists Blues Traveler as one of his favorite bands.

"I don't feel uncomfortable going on drive-time FM radio, to talk about politics in terms that younger people can understand. I'm kind of old, 45, but I'm not that old."

His three-day inaugural celebration, which kicks off with the Miami event, is designed in large part for younger people. He will host a children's event in Orlando on Monday morning, and after a gala ball in Tampa on Monday night, the inaugural parade in Tallahassee on Tuesday will conclude with a street party.

Bush says he likes Tallahassee. He has but one request.

"I just want a good Starbucks franchise," he said, noting that if there's good coffee in Tallahassee, "I haven't found it."