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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Gore's Larger-Than-Life 'Savior'

Legal: The tenacious lawyer is suing to have Seminole County's absentee ballots tossed. 'He was just in the right place at the right time,' a friend says.

November 29, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANFORD, Fla. — The man who would be Al Gore's savior is from, as he puts it, "the armpit of New Jersey," where his folks ran a fish store and he spent his youth gutting bluefish and snapper.

Since escaping to the University of Miami in the 1970s, Harry Jacobs has spent a quarter-century building nothing short of a legal empire here. His personal injury law firm was built on flash--incessant TV ads featuring celebrity pitchmen. And it was built on speed--a streamlined practice where the client rarely meets the lawyer and the lawyer rarely sets foot in court.

It has made Jacobs rich, given him a lakeside manor that walks the line between spectacular and gaudy, replete with deco sculptures hanging from the ceiling and fuchsia-colored seats at the dining room table that are brighter than the bougainvillea out front.

Raised in a blue collar but thriving in a starched, white one, he has forged a reputation as a tenacious competitor raring to take on insurance companies and hospitals. Critics call him a shameless ambulance chaser. Admirers call him a pit bull.

Now, Jacobs is taking on his most imposing opponent yet: America's Republican establishment. He has received death threats, he says. Locals are organizing a boycott of his law firm, Jacobs & Goodman. He is burning bridges left and right, or at least on the right, displeasing contacts and old friends in the local Republican Party.

Typically, he is surviving.

Jacobs, 53, has sued Seminole County elections officials, accusing them of allowing two Republican Party operatives to illegally correct thousands of flawed absentee ballot applications. The suit has suddenly become, after a series of legal setbacks, one of the vice president's last and best shots at winning the Florida vote and the White House.

"He was just in the right place at the right time, and it's almost like he was supposed to be there," said Scott Gold, an Altamonte Springs real estate attorney and Jacobs' friend for more than 20 years. "You sit around with some people, and they say, 'This is wrong, and that is wrong,' but they're just blowing off steam. Not Harry. He actually does something about it."

A Democratic election observer who has given tens of thousands of dollars to political campaigns and fosters an intense, remarkably detailed aversion to the Bush family, Jacobs is trying to get all of Seminole County's absentee ballots thrown out. That's at least 15,000 votes, and two-thirds of them were cast in this Republican stronghold for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

If Jacobs wins, it would be more than enough to overcome Bush's lead in Florida.

The case has been overshadowed by other court battles during the election, and it remains a legal longshot. But many observers now think the case has legs.

Two weeks ago, a Seminole County judge rebuffed Republican attorneys' demands that the case be thrown out before trial. The case has since been moved to Tallahassee. There, a judge gave Jacobs another victory Tuesday, ruling that he and his attorneys should have access to Seminole County records, including absentee ballot applications and the envelopes they arrived in. Those documents, Democrats believe, could help prove that enough ballot applications were altered to render the election results bogus.

The judge set the case for trial next Wednesday.

Jacobs is ready.

Back home earlier this week, he raced out of the Seminole County Courthouse toward a crowd of Bush supporters who jeered his familiar, rugged face. "Look out!" one man yelled through a bullhorn. "Here comes an ambulance, and here comes Jacobs!"

"And these are my best friends," Jacobs said with a laugh. "You should see the others."

At 80 mph, Jacobs deftly maneuvered his silver Mercedes-Benz through the traffic that strangles Orlando's northern suburbs. At home, he thundered through the plus-size living room, a Diet Coke in one hand and a cell phone in the other, conducting several conversations at once.

Minutes later, trying to catch a flight to Tallahassee, he grabbed his burgundy garment bag, threw open the door and yelled for his wife, Lauren Goodman, the co-founder of his law firm. "Honey?" he said. "I'm going." And he was out the door.

These are strange days, but to a certain extent this has been the pace of Jacobs' life as long as he can remember.

He attended night law school, working as a milk deliveryman during the day and often showing up to class still wearing his white uniform.

He worked relentlessly when he and Goodman launched the law firm in 1976, two years after they were married. He became famous in the area for his television ads, one of which featured an Orlando Magic basketball player--Jacobs is a season-ticket holder--hawking the firm's services.

Jacobs maintains his frantic, sometimes impulsive, pace at home as well at work.

"He looked in the mirror one day and said, 'God, I'm out of shape. I should do a triathlon,' " Gold recalled on Tuesday. "And then he does it. He'll work out 10 or 12 hours a day to do it, but he'll do it."

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