Jeb Bush tells Puerto Rican leaders he supports statehood, pledges compassion

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, answers questions from the audience at a Central Florida pastors meet and greet.


Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, stumping in his home state Monday, told a group of Latino pastors in Orlando that Puerto Rico should be given "more flexibility" to deal with its $70 billion debt burden.

"It could become like Greece, but without relief," said the Republican presidential candidate.

Speaking in Spanish and English, as he often does when address a largely Latino audience, Bush reiterated his support for statehood for Puerto Rico.

“My belief is that Puerto Ricans should have a right to self-determination,” Bush said during his stop in Central Florida, home to a growing Puerto Rican community. “I have long been a supporter of statehood.”

“I believe that full citizenship and all the rights and responsibilities that go along with full citizenship is the proper place.”

Bush added, however, that Puerto Rico’s leaders had to find a way to deal with the debt crisis before statehood could be seriously considered.

“Long before that’s done though there needs to be some solving of this economic challenge that Puerto Rico’s going through right now,” Bush said. “It’s not sustainable. You can buy a $69 ticket on Jet Blue and fly from San Juan to Orlando [which] is what many people are doing. It’s hard to see how you get out of this downward spiral of declining economic activity with a large debt load on top of it.”

“I don’t see how that creates anything other than more people leaving the island and coming to places like Orlando,” he said.

Bush also said that he is not an "angry" conservative but a "committed conservative" who, if elected president, would build a robust economy to lift people out of poverty, give children a good education and encourage families to stay together.

As conservatives, "if we act with our heart, people will rise," Bush told the crowd of clergy at Centro Internacional de la Familia, a nondenominational church with a congregation made up largely of Puerto Ricans.

Some pastors traveled from as far away as New Jersey and Puerto Rico to hear Bush.

He said his goal of growing the economy 4 percent annually would do more to help struggling Americans than any government program. Many economists doubt 4 percent is attainable.

"I'm a committed conservative," he said. "But I'm not angry. I want to help people rise up." That line was borrowed from the name of his super PAC, Right to Rise.

"My message is one of optimism, inspiration," Bush said in Spanish and again in English, a clear jab at Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has drawn attention with his controversial remarks about Mexico and Mexican immigrants.

"We have to restore hope," he said.

His message of political civility resonated with church leaders in attendance, including David L. Outing, an African-American from the Kingdom Church in Orlando. He said he was especially heartened by Bush's plan to campaign in black churches across the country.

"I believe him when he says he's going to be involved in my community and not just during political season," he said.

Wanda Rolon, one of six pastors who traveled from Puerto Rico to meet Bush in Orlando, said she felt reassured to hear Bush would assist her island homeland out of its debt crisis.

Gregory Brewer, the Episcopal bishop of Central Florida, asked Bush about the persecution of Christians in foreign countries, saying he personally knows victims in Egypt, Iran and Iraq.

"I don't think foreign policy should leave human rights behind," Brewer said.

Bush faulted the Obama administration's for "lack of commitment to persecuted Christians."

"If not us, who?" Bush asked rhetorically about the U.S. obligation to protect religious freedom everywhere.

Bush also reiterated his plan to fix U.S. immigration laws and extend legal status to people in the country illegally, an issue that places him at odds with several of his Republican rivals. 

"Yes, for crying out loud," he said when asked about overhauling immigration. "It's a broken system used as a wedge issue for political purposes." Bush places the first priority on securing the borders, a standard position in the GOP field.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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