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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Fla. Election Chief Aware of 'Historic' Role

Profile: Republican known for her support of the arts becomes unlikely pivotal player with recount decision. Her career has not been without controversy.

November 14, 2000|LISA GETTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a wearying 24 hours at work in the midst of chaos over last week's presidential election, an exhausted Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris took a moment to reflect on her role in the process.

"I feel so historic," she said. Little did she know.

By ruling Monday that all of Florida's 67 counties would have to complete their ballot recounts by 5 p.m. EST today--a move backed by the campaign of GOP Texas Gov. George W. Bush--the 43-year-old Republican became an unlikely pivotal player in the closest balloting in America's history.

Harris contended she had no discretion to extend the deadline, except in the case of a natural disaster. "But a close election, regardless of the identity of the candidate, is not such a circumstance," she said.

This, from a woman who once told an interviewer that she didn't like "gamesmanship" in politics. A multimillionaire whose state position is due to be eliminated in 2002, Harris has spent much of her time in office as an influential patron of the arts.

In taking her hard line against time-consuming hand recounts sought by the presidential campaign of Democratic Vice President Al Gore, Harris incurred the icy disdain of former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who accused her Monday of a "move in the direction of partisan politics."

Republicans say otherwise. Former Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who lost to Harris in a recent primary battle, insisted "she's doing exactly what her constitutional duties require, no more, no less. To me, this isn't a political issue. This is whether someone is doing her job."

The job requires oversight of Florida's arts, libraries, historical sites and international trade, and supervision of corporate registration, business licensing and elections. It has been largely ceremonial--until now.

"It's an extraordinary responsibility," Harris said of her mandate to oversee the recount. "I'm very anxious. The process is so important here."

Harris has won high marks from both Republicans and Democrats for her support of the arts. There has been speculation in political circles here that Harris might win an ambassadorship or arts post in a Bush administration, whose candidacy she supported.

Harris campaigned for Bush in New Hampshire, was a Florida delegate to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and was one of eight co-chairs of his Florida campaign.

"She was a diligent member of the Florida Senate and has been a fairly active secretary of state, from both a cultural and arts perspective as well as a foreign trade perspective," said Florida lobbyist Ron Book, a Democrat, who helped raise money for Harris when she ran for the statewide office.

Harris' short term has not been without criticism. She has flown around the world to promote Florida trade, but critics note she has spent more money on travel than Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "I'm not abusing anything," she said last month. "I'm working my heart out for the state of Florida."

Harris grew up in Bartow, a small rural Florida town not far from Tampa. Her grandfather was the late Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a citrus and cattle baron who served in the state Senate.

After graduating from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and studying art in Spain and philosophy and religion in Switzerland, she went into business as a marketing executive for IBM, then sold commercial real estate in Sarasota. Later, she earned a master's degree in international trade at Harvard.

After the late Democratic Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her to the board of trustees of the Ringling Museum of Art, she sought more state money for the institution.

Disgusted with Sarasota politicians who did not have her commitment to cultural issues, she ran for the state Senate in 1994, collecting more than $20,000 in campaign contributions from a Florida insurance company called Riscorp. The firm would later be indicted in federal court for making illegal contributions to 23 candidates for state and federal offices, Harris among them. Harris, who was not charged, said she felt unfairly tainted by the scandal.

"If somebody hands you counterfeit money, how are you supposed to know it's counterfeit?" she said.

As a state senator, she sponsored a bill that would have required parental notification before girls under 18 could get an abortion. But it was vetoed by Chiles.

Dubbed one of Sarasota's "most prominent bachelorettes" by the local newspaper, her marriage in December 1996 to businessman Sven Anders Axel Ebbeson made headlines. They married at the Charlotte County government center, where she made her first campaign appearance. Then they flew to Paris.

Harris is worth about $6.5 million, mostly from stock in her family's agricultural interests--she used $23,000 of her own money to run for secretary of state.

After one term as a state senator, Harris decided to run for statewide office, raising more than $1.5 million.

Harris won the 1988 GOP primary after a hard fight, then defeated her Democratic opponent.

Her first term will be her last. Harris will be Florida's last elected secretary of state. Voters approved a change in the state Constitution that eliminates the position in 2002.

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