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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Harris: Can This Steel Magnolia Take the Heat?

Profile: Florida secretary of state has lived through political scandal, but next few days will be tougher test.

November 18, 2000|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — It's not clear whether Katherine Harris knew she was being taped that day in her Tallahassee office last March. But the secretary of state made it very clear that she knew her place in Florida's rough-and-tumble Republican Party power politics.

At stake was the future of Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art, the beloved institution where Harris dug her first political trenches, where she'd learned fund-raising as an art form and where she'd reached out to borrow more than a dozen of the masterpieces that now lined her state office walls.

She told the museum trustees she had known for four months of a plan by powerful Republican state Sen. John McKay to disband the independent board and hand the 66-acre museum over to Florida State University, a move she conceded could destroy the museum. But Harris, who had been steadfast in her responsibility to protect all state-owned museums such as Ringling, admitted she had neither said nor done anything to stop the man who was about to become president of the Florida Senate.

"I tell you, John McKay is powerful. We have all been very tentative about annoying him because he is going to be very powerful," she told the stunned trustees, according to the tape on file at the museum and later excerpted in a local newspaper.

"If John wants to do it, it is a done deal."

It was, for many back in Harris' hometown of Sarasota, a telling moment in the relatively young political life of the Florida state official whose judgments in the current election battle appear to be pushing Texas Gov. George W. Bush toward the door of the White House. Her comments--pragmatic or expedient, depending on one's point of view--help to characterize this suddenly famous and powerful woman who has variously been described by associates as ambitious, determined, dynamic, enigmatic and vague.

"What an admission of weakness by an elected official," complained one museum trustee in a letter to the editor of Sarasota's Herald-Tribune after it had published a partial transcript.

From the Land of Arm-Twisting

It is just those strengths and weaknesses--and, indeed, the 43-year-old citrus and cattle heiress' character itself--in a state known for its arm-twisting politics that have come under minute scrutiny in the days since Secretary of State Harris and her "discretion" began charting the course of U.S. presidential history.

At a time when Democratic Party stalwarts are suggesting Harris is following a script written by Republicans far more powerful than she in making her way through Florida's crucial presidential balloting, her refusal to buck state Sen. McKay to defend an institution so near to her heart resonates back home.

Throughout the last 10 historic days of decision-making, Harris, as the top election official in the decisive state of Florida, has stridently defended her independence in public statements. She has, however, granted no interviews nor fielded reporters' questions on the issue.

"She's got the weight of the world on her, and I guess the jury is still out on whether she's strong enough to withstand it," said Ronald Book, a lobbyist and lecturer who donated $2,000 to Harris' campaign two years ago.

"I think she has the ability to handle this issue. I think she will handle this issue. But it's going to be debated on and lectured on until your and my lives are over," Book said.

If there are any moments of self-doubt, Harris can browse through the 400,000 to 500,000 e-mails she has received in the last several days--the vast majority of them described as supportive--and smell the hundreds of bouquets of flowers delivered to her Tallahassee office.

The e-mails and Harris' phone logs were released by the state Friday in response to public record requests by The Times. There were kudos galore from GOP political operatives, according to the phone logs. "Good job" was the message from Mike Hightower, a Jacksonville lobbyist who raised more than $100,000 for the Bush campaign.

The logs recorded no phone calls last Wednesday and Thursday, the days right after the election when Harris' office was inundated. Her office could offer no logical explanation for why the calls weren't documented.

Born Into Politics and a Wealthy Family

Harris' political life began in earnest nine years ago, with her appointment by Florida's Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to the very museum board she had addressed in her office last March. But, by all accounts, Harris had been around politics all her life.

Born in April 1957, the eldest daughter of one of five children spawned by Ben Hill Griffin Jr., Harris grew up in the bucolic central Florida town of Bartow with a horse named Crackers, a high school reputation for hard work and good looks, and a granddad who helped shape the state, its politics and presumably the young Harris.

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