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Harris' cluelessness should come as no surprise

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- It turns out that those sore-loser Democrats and other picky people were right about Katherine Harris all along. She was clueless about the election laws she was elected to administer and enforce.

At a hastily called news conference, which played out as opera bouffe, Harris had to admit Thursday that she had ceased to be secretary of state 16 days before, and guess what? She hadn't known it.

She had forfeited the office by failing to file a routine notice of resignation, as required by law, when she qualified to run for Congress July 15. She seemed to think it did not matter because she was planning to resign anyhow, though somewhat later.

Her elections division had, of course, alertly and instantly challenged Attorney Gen. Bob Butterworth under a similar law, which he insists does not apply, when he filed for the state Senate. Another double standard for Democrats?

It remains to be learned who belatedly blew the whistle on her. This was one of the questions reporters might have asked if her handlers hadn't hustled her out of harm's way before any more incompetence could show. When the questions turned to the legality of her actions as "de facto secretary" during the previous two weeks, aides swept her out of the room, scattering reporters' microphones and tape recorders in their wake.

Remember who pays these people: You do.

Yet another elections blunder turned up the next day. Primary ballots approved by her office tell voters in the Democratic gubernatorial primary to "vote for one pair." That means, at a minimum, many spoiled absentee ballots and perhaps yet another election contest. Each of the three candidates is running as an individual. Under a constitutional amendment voters approved four years ago, the nominee can wait until after the primary to name a running mate. The division apparently blames the Legislature for not changing ballot language law. Excuse me, but whose job was it to alert the Legislature? Hers.

No one should be surprised, however, that Harris paid so little attention to it. Throughout her 1988 campaign, she plainly regarded elections as the least important part of the secretary's job, almost a nuisance, actually, that could be left to the staff.

Sandra Mortham, the incumbent Harris defeated with a smear campaign in the GOP primary, always put elections first and needed no minders to protect her from the press on that subject, or any other. Harris, however, coveted the post for purposes the Constitution and laws never intended. She would be Florida's roving ambassador to the world at large, a minor league Colin Powell; it would be on-the-job training for her expected promotion to the real diplomatic corps, where she no doubt would now be heading but for the impossibility of Senate confirmation. But for her partisan performance in the presidential recount, millions of people who would otherwise accept the outcome as close but fair will forever believe that she was the puppet through whom the Republicans stole it.

Her intended consolation prize is the U.S. House, where as merely one of 435 she could do little damage. Alas, her subsequent goal is the Senate.

As for the next act in Tallahassee's comedy of errors, it depends on the attorney general's race. Exit Katherine Harris. Enter Charlie Crist?

* * *

Among the reforms resulting from the presidential debacle, there was one egregious dirty trick. For this year only, the Legislature eliminated the runoff primary, figuring that a crowded Democratic primary would produce a weak gubernatorial nominee. But with the field having shrunk to three, odds are good that either Janet Reno or Bill McBride will command a majority. It is the Republicans who now seem to have the most to lose from a one-shot primary.

Their particular problem is Senate District 27, that Atlantic-to-Gulf gerrymander, linked in the middle only by the unpopulated waters and shore of Lake Okeechobee. There, the Republicans' geographical ingenuity could cost them a seat they expected to pick up.

Five Republicans want the nomination. Only three could be rated strong candidates. But two of them, former Sen. Frank Mann and ex-Rep. Ralph Livingson, are from Lee County. That leaves Sharon Merchant, another former representative, to pluck most of the Republican votes in Palm Beach. Lee has 55 percent of the GOP votes, but without a runoff, Merchant wins if Lee splits.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to nominate a strong candidate who lives in Palm Beach. The major parties have virtually equal registration, which ought to favor the Republicans. But Palm Beach voters are as territorial as Lee's, and they have 57 percent of the total vote. What's more, the Gore-Lieberman ticket and Democrat Bill Nelson won handily there two years ago.

For assorted reasons, Merchant has no fans among the Senate Republican leadership, which has let lobbyists and others know that it would not pain them too much to see a Democrat elected instead of her.

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