Potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush has an ace up his sleeve as he gears up for a grueling campaign in 2016 —
his quiet wife of 40 years, Columba, a Mexican-born immigrant.
Mother of three, Columba is known as a "shy" and retiring person who has tended to shun the media spotlight whenever possible during the decades that the former Florida governor has been in public office.
But an in-depth investigation by The Hill
found that "a rock-solid interior" lies behind the very private demeanor of the woman who could become the nation’s first Hispanic first lady.
And after speaking to friends and family, the political news website said that Columba was "fully prepared" to put herself in the firing line if Bush enters the race for the White House next year.
"Just because she’s reticent to engage publicly doesn’t mean she’s not ready for it," said Brett Doster, a political adviser on Bush’s first campaign for Florida governor in 1993.
"She’s strong as iron. If [Jeb] decides to run, she’ll be a great partner on the trail. I think that anybody who would presume she’s not ready for some of these tough tasks is severely underestimating her."
Columba, who was born Columba Garnica Gallo in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, and whose father was reportedly a migrant worker, is believed to have been at the core of Bush’s controversial "act of love" immigration message.
His speech has been denounced by conservatives
and may hurt his chances in early presidential primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, says The Hill, which noted that Jeb and Columba speak Spanish at home.
However, more moderate Republicans think that Columba’s immigrant status could help bring out the Hispanic vote for Bush, which is even more vital now that President Barack Obama has received overwhelming Latino support for his order giving amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
"In the primaries, the idea of a candidate talking immigration reform with a biracial family on the stump is going to be a big moment," said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. "She’s going to have to navigate it as well as Jeb does."
He added, "These moments, you never know when they’ll come, but they’ve come for all of the first ladies."
Asked what role she would play in a possible presidential campaign, friends and family said that her shyness had been overplayed in the media while the support she will bring for Bush has been badly misjudged.
They also told The Hill that Columba has never been given the recognition she fully deserves for her public service because she does not enjoy being in the public eye.
"A lot of this political noise doesn’t attract her," said Al Cardenas, a senior partner at Squire Patton Boggs and a family friend for 40 years. "The glamor aspects of the office don’t attract her, the notoriety doesn’t attract her. The things that attract so many people to politics just aren’t important to her."
But certain women’s causes and substance abuse issues are important to her, say the friends. In fact, Columba has been an advocate against spousal battery in the Sunshine State ever since her husband became governor in 2000.
Tiffany Carr, the president and CEO of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said, "I figured this would just be one of those obligatory first lady things that lasted about 15 minutes. But we took her to a couple of shelters and she had this immediate connection with people."
With Columba urging her husband to make domestic violence a priority during his tenure, the Florida Legislature passed the Family Protection Act for stronger punishment against offenders and to upgrade conditions at women’s shelters.
In 2002, Columba was faced with a more personal issue when her daughter Noelle’s struggle with drugs became national news.
"Columba’s response was not to hide," Kathleen Shanahan, Bush’s former chief of staff, told The Hill. "She educated herself on the issue and sought to highlight the resources in the state that were available to others dealing with the same thing."
Columba became "National Madrina," or godmother, for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which hosts statewide meetings as part of the effort to keep young Hispanic girls off drugs, according to The Hill.
She also served as co-chairwoman of a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism program aimed at keeping children alcohol-free, and she currently serves on the board of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
"[Columba] is going to be fine," Alfonso Aguilar, Latino partnership director at the American Principles Project, told the website. "This is a role that people have to grow into."
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