Harris could have the last laugh
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Vote Harris -- We're not going to count the other votes anyway! -- One of Katherine Harris' rejected congressional campaign slogans, as imagined by a humor Web site.
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SARASOTA -- Katherine Harris probably will waltz into Congress next year with a strange distinction: No Florida leader -- and few in America -- has been the butt of so many jokes while thriving in politics.
Florida's secretary of state has been described as looking like a drag queen who puts on makeup with a trowel. She has been likened to Cruella De Vil, the Walt Disney villain bent on turning Dalmatian puppies into fur coats.
Barring a huge upset, her ardent detractors will soon be calling her Congresswoman De Vil.
"I really like Dalmatians," the 45-year-old Harris quipped last week.
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"Katherine, honey, there's another setting on your make-up mirror. It's called "daytime.' Check it out." -- Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey.
Jay Leno called the 2000 presidential election "tighter than Katherine Harris' face." But for all the mean, personal and often sexist jokes that the election mess spawned at Harris' expense, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to her career. Before certifying George W. Bush as president, Harris was merely a Republican politician off to a slightly rocky start in statewide office, fending off criticism for lavish travel expenses.
The election made her a national celebrity and GOP superstar. Sure, hard-core Democrats loathe her, seeing her as the personification of anything-to-win Republican evil. But millions of others see her as a gutsy folk hero who helped stop Democrats from stealing the White House.
Burnishing that reputation, Harris will soon publish a book, Center of the Storm: Practicing Principled Leadership in a Time of Crisis, about her recount experiences. It is scheduled to hit shelves Sept. 3.
"All my political friends tell me that it helped me. I never wished for that spotlight, and certainly didn't expect it. . . . But if I could turn back the hands of time now, I wouldn't let anybody take it from me," Harris said.
She follows the advice of her friend and former U.S. senator, Connie Mack, who told her not to bother reading most of the press about her. She knows of the jokes, but says she she doesn't let them get to her.
"Nobody can point to one single, solitary issue where we did not follow the rule of law absolutely," she said.
When Greenville, S.C., homemaker Jane Hipp received a fundraising letter from Harris a few months back, she didn't hesitate to grab her checkbook.
"I admire her greatly because I think she elected our president," said Mrs. Hipp, who sent $1,000 to Harris' congressional campaign. "I feel very strongly about our president, and I feel it was Katherine Harris' decision that played a big part in him winning. She held herself very straight and very strong throughout."
That image made Harris a magnet for campaign contributions, for herself and for Republicans across the country. Her campaign raised more than $1.7-million -- more than outgoing Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Miller spent combined over five elections.
Harris makes no apologies for lavish campaign spending, which includes two television ads that already have aired touting her courage, environmental credentials and old Florida roots. Democrats want to make her into a caricature of ambition and bias, and she intends to fight back.
"We have been targeted by the national Democratic Party," she said. "This is the first chance I've had to respond to so many of the charges that were flagrantly wrong and untrue."
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"I don't know if you heard the latest news. Katherine Harris has decided to give up her run for Congress. It's true. Given her record of impartiality, they're going to make her an Olympic figure skating judge." -- Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
As much as Harris can fire up the Republican base, her name works similar wonders on Democrats. For all their Harris-bashing, Democratic leaders see little chance of keeping her out of Congress.
It would be a different story if she were running for statewide office. Then she would face the wrath of more vengeful Democrats in places like Palm Beach County, whose marathon recount effort Harris summarily shut down before it was complete.
But this is not a statewide race. Her announced opponents, two Republicans and four Democrats, are all political novices.
Sarasota County Republican Chairman Tramm Hudson planned to run but backed off when he learned Harris would jump in. "For someone like me, just a poor little banker, I didn't want to get in front of that freight train," Hudson said.
The district is a Republican stronghold that includes the counties of Sarasota, Hardee, Desoto, most of Manatee and part of Charlotte. It backed Bush over Gore 53 percent to 44 percent in 2000. When Harris ran for secretary of state in 1998 she won more than 61 percent of the district's votes.
Harris supports President Bush's war on terrorism and military buildup. She wants schools to have greater flexibility in spending federal money. And she touts environmental protection and standing up for veterans.
Her Republican challengers include a former local TV news anchor, John C. Hill, and a computer consultant named Chester Flake. The Democrats include another former local newscaster, Candice Brown McElyea, and Jan Schneider, a lawyer and former Yale Law School classmate of Bill and Hillary Clinton's. They say Harris has antagonized enough people to enable Democrats to pick up Republican votes.
Hudson, though, said it's no accident well-known Democrats steered clear. "It is so overwhelmingly Republican," he said, "a Democrat is absolutely hopeless in this district."
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"Katherine Harris is in the middle of her 15 minutes of fame. Here's stage one of the 15 minutes of fame: Public ridicule. Stage two: The beauty makeover. Stage three: Posing nude for Playboy. Stage four: Becoming Mrs. Larry King." -- David Letterman.
The first thing many people mention about Katherine Harris is her size. She's much smaller than she looks on TV. Her driver's license pegs Harris at 5-foot 4-inches. Most people know her as the rigid, heavily made up woman reading statements on CNN or even as a crazed floozy played by a Saturday Night Live actor.
She refused to answer questions during the recount, but in Tallahassee she can be so chatty that ending a conversation with her can be a challenge. Some people seem stunned to meet a self-effacing woman without mountains of makeup. "Call me Katherine," she repeatedly tells voters.
"I saw her speak, and I looked at her and said, "Oh my God. She's beautiful.' I guess I expected someone with blue eye shadow, but she looked great and was so bright and so nice," said Terry Kushugian of Sarasota.
Her sentiments were echoed along Main Street during Sarasota's Memorial Day parade. Harris, sporting a red, white and blue lei and American Eagle earrings with pearls, sat in an Army Jeep in front of a machine gun turret, waving and smiling.
Elderly men beamed and shouted to her:
"I'm behind you 100 percent, kiddo!"
"Wish you luck, baby!"
At one point, a fellow sitting on a bench started hollering: "Anybody but Katherine Harris! Anybody but Katherine Harris!"
The army jeep's siren promptly sounded and drowned him out.
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"It's cold out. It's even cold in Florida. So cold today that Katherine Harris put on a third layer of makeup." -- Jay Leno.
A Key West native who was raised in Polk County, Harris is the millionaire granddaughter of citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin. She worked in real estate and marketing before being elected to the state Senate in 1994.
Harris, who married a Swedish businessman at Notre Dame in Paris and has a 20-year-old step-daughter, has never been a meek politician. Running for secretary of state in 1998, she won a particularly nasty primary campaign for the generally low-profile cabinet office.
In 2000, the secretary of state became a co-chairman of the George W. Bush Florida campaign, and told colleagues in Tallahassee that she hoped to become an ambassador. She is widely believed to be eyeing other offices, particularly the U.S. Senate.
Harris, though, brushes off such speculation, saying she is concentrating exclusively on winning a congressional seat and taking nothing for granted.
"We're going door-to-door every weekend," she said. "I'm running like it's the first time I've ever run for office."
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"Last night they found 86 more ballots in Katherine Harris's hair. . . . Did you know that her hair was the only thing left standing after Hurricane Andrew?" -- David Letterman.
Come November, Katherine Harris could have the last laugh.
-- Times photographer Cherie Diez contributed to this report.
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