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    Lampooning shows Reno is vulnerable for big government ways

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 19, 2002

    MIAMI -- Janet Reno has boogied on Saturday Night Live and chatted with Jay Leno. Her most striking pop culture TV appearance, though, may have been a couple years ago on the raunchy cartoon South Park.

    There she was, dressed in a pink Easter Bunny costume and clutching an Uzi. As imagined by South Park's writers, 8-year-old Romanian quintuplets had sought asylum in America, and Reno was bent on returning them to their father in Romania. With help from an explosive egg and heavily armed federal agents, Reno personally yanked the kids out of a closet at gun point.

    The episode aired in April 2000, right after Reno ordered armed agents to seize 8-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the home of Miami relatives fighting his return to Cuba. Two years later, in some Cuban-American Miami neighborhoods, Reno's name still elicits reactions as extreme as anything South Park could dream up.

    "I wish I had her here right now, so I could tear her into little pieces," Yolanda Navarro snapped when asked about the leading Democrat vying to unseat Gov. Jeb Bush. "What she did to Elian I will never forget."

    On Monday, President Bush is scheduled to fly to Miami to commemorate Cuban Independence Day and court some of the GOP's most loyal supporters in Florida. To the delight of many Cuban exiles in Miami, the president will announce tighter sanctions on Cuba, including travel restrictions.

    The president will also raise more money for his brother's re-election and, at least indirectly, underscore Reno's Elian problem.

    The gains that Bill Clinton made among Florida's Cuban-Americans -- winning 29 percent of their vote in 1996, compared to Gore's 19 percent in 2000 -- appear entirely out of reach for Reno.

    "I've got quite a few friends who are Cuban-Americans and Democrats, and they're now voting Republican because of Elian," Jorge Carbonell said while sipping Cuban coffee outside Miami's Versailles restaurant.

    Reno won support from the Cuban community as Miami-Dade state attorney, but these days she's radioactive to a sizable chunk of her hometown constituency. State Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas predicts that turnout among Cuban-Americans will surge by at least 15 percent for the opportunity to vote against Reno.

    "I would be surprised if Reno breaks even into double figures among Cuban-Americans," said Sergio Bendixon, a veteran South Florida pollster.

    A March St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll found one in three voters statewide agreed they "won't vote for Janet Reno as governor because of her role during the Elian Gonzalez situation." More than 60 percent disagreed that it would cause them to vote against her.

    In terms of Reno's larger political baggage, Elian amounts to a carry-on bag. Cuban-Americans make up roughly 7 percent of Florida voters and vote overwhelmingly Republican anyway. Most Hispanic voters in Florida are non-Cuban and tend to vote Democratic.

    Polls showed most Americans, and presumably most Floridians, supported returning Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. On the campaign, Elian has become one of the biggest applause lines in Reno's stump speeches.

    "If you think it's baggage to return a little boy to his daddy, when the little boys' family members said he had been a good father, if that's baggage, then vote for somebody else," she said to cheers in Jacksonville recently.

    If Reno wins the Democratic primary, her real challenge is not picking off Cuban-American voters from the Republican base; it's winning over independent voters and exciting her own base.

    Wonder why so many Democratic Party elites are queasy about Reno and pegging Tampa lawyer Bill McBride as the stronger nominee? Consider a recent internal poll the Democratic Party took in the state Senate district now held by Democrat Rod Smith.

    This is a district that includes strongly Democratic Gainesville and which Al Gore won and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson overwhelmingly took in 2000. But the poll found nearly 47 percent of voters there had an unfavorable view of Reno and less than 41 percent viewed her favorably. The poll did not ask about McBride, but found nearly 57 percent of voters in and around Gainesville viewed Gov. Bush favorably and 40 percent unfavorably.

    Reno's problem is not Elian, as much as it her susceptibility to savage lampooning on a show like South Park. Most people may agree Elian Gonzalez belonged with his father, but that doesn't necessarily make them comfortable with a figure widely seen as controversial and divisive.

    "From a statewide perspective, Elian is not any bigger of an issue than Waco," said Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University in Miami. "Reno's problem is not one political issue. But in total these issues kind of create an image of a big government person many people are uncomfortable with."

    On Monday, the Bush brothers will bask in the embrace of supporters not far from the shrine where people still deposit flowers to remember Elian Gonzalez. Reno can only hope that elsewhere in the state, voters will recall the Elian saga and think admiringly of an attorney general willing to make the toughest decisions and take responsibility for them.

    -- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or

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