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THE NATION

Harris Has Right Makeup for Politics

Congress: The Florida Republican, admired and reviled for her role in the 2000 election, seeks a seat in the House.

April 27, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARASOTA, Fla. — To Democrats across America, she was for a few tumultuous weeks the most reviled woman in politics. But that is neither here nor now. Wearing a brown dress long enough to conceal the knees she'd scraped in a bicycle fall, she thrusts her hand over the bar top to greet a voter. "Call me Katherine," she insists.

Katherine Harris, the Republican who certified George W. Bush's disputed presidential victory in Florida, now wants to go to Washington herself as a House member representing this mostly white, mostly well-to-do strip of Florida's Gulf Coast. To millions of Americans watching as the White House runoff drama unfolded, Harris appeared scandalously partisan--even wicked. But among Republicans, who predominate here in Florida's 13th Congressional District, she is a hero.

"She stood her ground, and I admired her for that," Lee Kelso, a 72-year-old retiree, said while enjoying some strawberries and clotted cream during high tea at the Ritz-Carlton hotel here. "She has the courage of her convictions. She seems to be a fine person."

One recent evening, Harris campaigned before the cops and retirees of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3. Her 15-minute speech got her a standing ovation and a blue warmup jacket from the lodge president. "To me, she is absolutely down-home Florida," said Officer 1st Class Doug Peters of the Sarasota Marine Patrol. "My wife is going to be happy I got to meet Katherine Harris and thank her for upholding Florida law."

Harris, the multimillionaire granddaughter of one of Florida's most influential citrus and cattle magnates, isn't the only polarizing figure seeking office this year in the Sunshine State: There's former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, the favored candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and--depending on one's political affiliation--either an esteemed or a loathed member of the Clinton administration.

Both contests should keep Florida in the national political spotlight until November, when analysts likely will scrutinize election day results for clues to the next presidential race. Just as in 2000, Florida widely is considered a must-win for the White House contenders in 2004.

As Florida's secretary of state, Harris oversaw the ballot recount that awarded the state's electoral votes--and the White House--to Bush. (She also happened to be co-chairwoman of Bush's Florida campaign. And Gov. Jeb Bush happens to be the president's brother.)

"I'd love to see her in custody," said Cosmo Hansen, 67, a store clerk on Sarasota's Main Street. "I think the woman is evil incarnate. She stole the election."

During the recount process, Harris says she received 750,000 e-mails that ran the gamut from death threats to love letters. While admirers sent bouquets, her makeup became the butt of jokes on late-night television. One Democratic operative likened her to Cruella De Vil, the garishly made-up Walt Disney villain who wanted to skin Dalmatian puppies to make a coat.

"If you're a partisan Democrat, she is the she-devil," said Richard Scher, professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "When you cross the street and ask the same question, they see her as Mary, Queen of Grace."

Democrats say they believe Harris' name on the ballot will galvanize those Floridians, including blacks and Jewish retirees, who think she disenfranchised them a year and a half ago. "We have candidates lining up down there for a chance to take on Ms. Harris," reported Ryan Banfill, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party in Tallahassee. To date, there are three: a teacher, a lawyer and a former TV reporter.

Harris, who faces a pair of little-known GOP challengers in the Sept. 10 primary, says she fully expects to come under fire from Democrats nationwide. But in campaign appearances throughout the district, the woman who also served four years as a state senator talks more like a humble novice than a nationally known politician.

"I'm starting all over again," Harris told the police lodge membership. "When I'm walking from door to door, I'm just Katherine."

Two years ago, Harris attempted to get her party's blessing for a U.S. Senate nomination but was passed over. Some GOP leaders have been unable to conceal their distaste for what they see as her showboating and raw ambition. State Senate President John McKay told one newspaper columnist last year: "There are probably people who could better represent the area." According to the Bradenton Herald, McKay's hometown paper, some area Republicans tried to persuade five-term GOP incumbent Rep. Dan Miller not to retire so as not to provide an opening for Harris.

Far from being a showoff, Harris said, she was a legislative workhorse during her 1994-98 tenure in the Florida Senate. "I'll work very hard, I'll come home and listen, and I'll take that voice to Washington," she said.

So far, Harris has raised more than $1.7 million for her race, a sum that reflects the gratitude of Republicans across the country.

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