Jeb Bush calls Confederate flag racist during campaign stop near Columbia

Jeb Bush meets with about 60 clergy members from the Carolinas Monday in North Charleston.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s first Charleston appearance since declaring his White House bid was behind closed doors Monday with about 60 clergy members from the Carolinas. But in a more visible setting later in the day, Bush called the Confederate flag a “racist” symbol.

The former two-term Florida governor was in Midlands on Monday afternoon. He spoke of how in 2001 he decided to do something “politically incorrect” by ordering the removal of a flag that included the Confederate symbol from the Florida State Capitol grounds, according to The Washington Post.

“The symbols were racist,” Bush was quoted as saying during a tour of the Nephron Pharmaceutical Co. in West Columbia.

“If you’re trying to lean forward rather than live in the past, you want to eliminate the barriers that create disagreements,” he added.

Bush also credited Gov. Nikki Haley for “doing more or less the same thing under a lot of pressure” with her call to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“South Carolina wants to be viewed as the host of this great business,” Bush said. “Most South Carolinians ... are proud of the businesses that have come here. ... Anything that gets in the way of that vision, I think while doing it respectfully, ought to be put aside and allow South Carolina to move forward.”

Bush’s comments came earlier in the day as he met with clergy at a North Charleston hotel in a session that was closed to the media.

Bush spoke for about an hour at the DoubleTree Hilton on International Boulevard. Those who attended said afterward that Bush told them about his personal story and beliefs. He also took questions regarding his political stances.

Bush only lightly addressed the Emanuel AME Church mass shooting that killed nine black parishioners June 17.

Other than praying for the victims and their families and decrying the fact that the shooting took place, “that was not his focus,” said the Rev. John Scott of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Summerville. “He just kind of told his story,” Scott said.

“He mentioned it, but it was not his focus,” said John Pharis, of City Church of Charleston.

Bush was scheduled to hold his South Carolina kickoff announcement in a much larger rally in Charleston on the morning after the shootings. It was postponed.

Monday’s gathering was organized by state Rep. Samuel Rivers, R-Goose Creek, who is an area pastor and a member of the Bush campaign leadership team in South Carolina.

Rivers said he wanted to create an opportunity for ministers he knows to have a “face-to-face” with Bush to hear his views on the economy, education, race relations and immigration. Rivers said the group was made up of senior clergy.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.