In First Florida Governor Race, Jeb Bush Backed Controversial 'Spanker's Bill of Rights'

WASHINGTON -- As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) prepares to run for president in 2016, he rarely misses a chance to praise the nation's young people, whom he says are a model for the rest of the country because they "believe that the future will be better than whatever life is like now."

But Bush wasn't always such an upbeat cheerleader for kids. As the Republican nominee for governor in 1994, Bush ran as the pro-spanking candidate -- literally -- by endorsing a controversial bill known as the "Spanker's Bill of Rights."

The so-called bill of rights was a set of laws that shielded Florida parents who spanked their children from the threat of child abuse charges, as long as they stopped short of inflicting "significant" welts or bruises on the child. The legislation also forbade cities and towns in Florida from passing local laws that restricted parents' rights to spank their children where and when they pleased. According to its sponsor, the bill was intended to address crime among youth by giving parents more disciplinary options.

The Florida legislature approved the Spanker's Bill of Rights in the spring of 1994. Despite support from conservatives in both parties, the legislation was met with stiff opposition from children's advocates, medical professionals and prosecutors, who said the law would make it harder to prosecute child abusers. In light of these concerns, Lawton Chiles, the state's Democratic governor at the time, vetoed the Spanker's Bill of Rights in May.

The governor's veto offered Bush an easy line of attack against Chiles. Over the next few months, Bush characterized the governor's rejection of the Spanker's Bill of Rights as a failure to protect the rights of parents against an overzealous children's welfare agency.

"I don't believe that [Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services] should intervene in family life to the extent that it does now," Bush said during a major televised debate in November 1994, adding that he thought the state health agency needed to "take a couple of steps back."

The Spanker's Bill of Rights, Bush said, would have "restored parental power back into family life."

Bush wasn't the only one making sure voters knew that he backed the Spanker's Bill of Rights. The Christian Coalition of Florida highlighted the issue in thousands of "voter guides" that the group distributed across the state during the course of the campaign. According to a Nov. 7, 1994 report in the Miami Herald, the booklets claimed to show where each candidate in the race stood on a number of issues. Under the issue title "parental right to use corporal punishment on their children," the guide listed Bush in favor and Chiles against.

In the end, Bush's support for the Spanker's Bill of Rights failed to tilt the scales far enough in his favor, and he narrowly lost the election to Chiles in November. By the time Bush was ready to run again for governor four years later, the issue of corporal punishment for children seems to have been eclipsed by other pressing problems.

Bush won the 1998 race by a comfortable margin, and served as governor until 2007.

Politicians On Pot