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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Miami-Dade Election Official Denies Being Intimidated

Tally: David Leahy voted against a hand recount, but he calls the GOP disturbance 'a noisy, peaceful protest.'

November 26, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Where Democrats saw an unruly Republican mob that last week scuttled Miami-Dade County's manual recount, election supervisor David Leahy said Saturday he saw "a noisy, peaceful protest."

"I was not intimidated by that protest," Leahy told The Times in a telephone interview. "I saw it for what it was."

Republicans staged a raucous sit-in and pounded on office doors in anger over the county canvassing board's decision last Wednesday to move the recount operation from an 18th-floor conference room in the downtown government center to a smaller office one floor above.

"These were individuals who were downstairs as observers, and they were unhappy with the board's decision [to move]," Leahy said. "To me, that was understandable, and the news media had the same concern. They protested as well."

Although Leahy said he sensed no threat to his safety from the chanting demonstrators, some of his staff did. Assistant supervisor of elections Gisela Salas said a receptionist fled from her desk as the demonstrators advanced.

"If I had viewed it as an ugly mob trying to destroy something, I would have been concerned," said Leahy. "I know security personnel were concerned."

Indeed, about two hours after police quelled the disturbance, Leahy and the two other members of the canvassing board returned to the conference room under a police escort. After hearing from attorneys representing the Democrats and Republicans, they then voted, 3 to 0, to halt the recount.

"We determined that there was not sufficient time to conduct a full manual recount," said Leahy. "Nor did I have any belief that we would get [today's] deadline extended."

Leahy said he underestimated the time needed to inspect 10,750 ballots--the undercounts that registered no vote for president--while at the same time monitoring the machines that had yet to finish sorting out the undercounts.

"My best guess was maybe we could do 60 [ballots] an hour, which would fall well short of the deadline," Leahy said.

Others on Board Deny Feeling Pressured

The other board members, county Judges Myriam Lehr and Lawrence D. King, also have denied feeling any community pressure to stop the recount, which until then had uncovered what looked like an unexpectedly rich trove of votes for Al Gore. With 135 of 614 precincts recounted, the vice president had picked up 157 votes over Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Although it suspended the countywide recount, the board awarded Gore six additional votes from a sample hand count of three precincts.

A group of Democratic members of Congress on Friday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the Republican protesters intimidated the canvassing board. On Saturday, Democrats continued to denounce the Republicans' actions in Miami, and U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek of Miami called for Leahy's resignation.

"What happened," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), "was a mob threatened them, banged on their doors, roughed up people . . . and they succumbed to the mob violence and intimidation."

Justice Department Urged to Investigate

At a Saturday news conference, Nadler and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Democrat from Broward County, renewed calls for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Wednesday disturbance.

A day earlier, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, also charged that a "mob" of Republican protesters pressured the canvassing board into abandoning the vote recount.

The Gore campaign is expected to argue in Leon County Circuit Court Monday that the Florida vote is incomplete without a full recount in Miami-Dade.

"It violates the Constitution for the board not to have gone forward," said Hastings.

Hastings said the decision to stop may suggest that "a back-room deal was cut somewhere, and most of us will never know what transpired."

Leahy said there were no deals.

"I'm not surprised" by the allegations, said Leahy, 54, who has been election supervisor here for 19 years and has no party affiliation. "But it bothers me because the same individuals [making accusations] have not bothered to call me and ask what happened. I have worked hard to build a reputation for fairness and neutrality, but [that] doesn't seem to matter at times."

In Fort Lauderdale, Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan dismissed the Democrats' characterization of the Miami demonstration as "much ado about nothing. Keep in mind," said Sullivan, "that the protests were peaceful, relatively small, and no one was arrested."

Leahy twice voted against a hand recount, saying he was satisfied with the accuracy of a machine count that gave Gore 53% of the vote. But, he said, "if we get a court order to start counting again, we will. We know how to do it. We had two days of experience, and I was happy with way things were going."

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