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Former staffers open up on chaos of campaign

Katherine Harris has run through a lot of employees during her run for the U.S. Senate.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published August 11, 2006


 The smallest things would set her off.

Buying the wrong candy for her to toss at parades. Photographing her vertically instead of horizontally. Failing to bring her favorite Starbucks beverage extra hot venti triple latte, no fat, no foam, one Sweet'n Low.

One minute, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris would lavish campaign staffers with praise and hugs. The next she would lose her temper, screaming "stupid" or "idiot" at a startled employee.

"You never know what you are going to get," said Mike Miller, who left in February after serving eight months as her finance director. "Some days, it would be great. Other days, it would be 'Oh my God.' "

Harris, the leading Republican in the U.S. Senate race this fall, has lost at least 25 campaign staffers in the past year, including three campaign managers and a slew of prominent consultants. Even in politics, a world of hard-to-please bosses and oversized egos, that's an unheard of number for one campaign.

A few weeks ago, the core staff at her Tampa headquarters quit en masse. It was the second mass exodus.

"She just wears people down," said Ed Rollins, a nationally known Republican consultant, who served as her top aide until he left in April.

Harris, 49, a two-term congresswoman from the Sarasota area, has spent much of the past year in an endless cycle - hiring employees, alienating them, then begging them to stay. Her staff turnover, in both campaign and congressional offices, has become the subject of jokes in political circles, even bets over who might be next to leave.

Harris refused to comment for this story, saying in a statement that she would not respond to "unethical leaks and malicious gossip." But she made some brief comments about her staff after a campaign debate in Pinellas County last week.

"We are on a whole new upswing," she said. "The new staff is good, the new staff is great. That's the best thing that's happened to us. ...We have a staff that's committed to me to win, not to undermine me and maybe lose, and we're excited about that."

The St. Petersburg Times contacted Harris' former campaign staffers, interviewing more than a dozen. Many compared her to the over-the-top boss portrayed by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and all but one described Harris in a strikingly similar way.

They cited her demeaning comments, her practice of pitting staffers against each other, her unwillingness to take advice and her penchant for getting caught up for days in the tiniest details, such as the exact shade of blue to use on her business cards.

Harris frequently questioned her employees' loyalty and accused them of betraying her by writing negative e-mails about her, running an anti-Katherine Harris Web site, even working with an opponent's campaign.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Marks said Harris had grown tired of the misperceptions about her and would refer the newspaper to other former staffers who would speak positively about her. After more than a week, her office failed to produce any names.

"Katherine is her own worst enemy," said Anne Dunsmore, a well-known national fundraiser who left Harris' campaign in March. "I have never seen anyone sabotage themselves so much."

* * *

Former staffers recalled the excitement they felt when they joined the Senate campaign of a woman whose role as Florida secretary of state during the bitter 2000 presidential recount turned her into a GOP celebrity. At one time, political experts considered this year's U.S. Senate race in Florida a prime chance for Republicans to unseat the last statewide elected Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson. Harris made an early claim to be the Republican nominee.

"I was a believer," said Chris Ingram, Harris' former spokesman who left in July and now runs the campaign of a Republican opponent, LeRoy Collins.

Most staffers recall their first few weeks working for Harris fondly, describing her as charming and sweet. But they said they eventually saw another side of her.

Harris' former staffers attribute her behavior to the stress of what became an uphill battle for the Senate seat. Despite her celebrity, party leaders thought she was too polarizing a figure to win and questioned her prospects, courting others to run against her. Her fundraising continues to disappoint and federal investigators are digging into her relationship with defense contractor Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty to bribing another lawmaker.

Adding to the strain was her father's death in January and her own health problems that include last month's surgery to remove an ovarian mass.

Dunsmore attributes some of Harris' problems to staffers who did not do as she asked, and the difficulties of being a woman in a man's world. But she says Harris is ultimately responsible for where she is today.

"It's easy to blame her for everything," she said. "She makes it easy."

Esther Mae, who worked as Harris' scheduler until December, is the only employee contacted who spoke in completely positive terms about Harris, saying she never saw the type of behavior others employees mentioned.

Mae said she left after less than two months because staffers were working against Harris, making the congresswoman appear confused and the campaign seem chaotic.

"I quickly realized they were not trying to help Katherine," said Mae, who applied for the job after volunteering in Harris' previous congressional campaign. "They were trying to hurt her."

Mae's bosses, campaign managers Jim Dornan and Jamie Miller, dispute that. Miller described her as a "disgruntled employee," while Dornan said she misrepresented her work experience and was hired because of her friendship with Harris' spiritual adviser.

* * *

Harris' outbursts - which some staffers referred to as "meltdowns" - occurred more and more frequently as the fledgling campaign took one hit after another.

As she traveled to campaign events, she often criticized staff about the time or location - even if she had suggested it. She frequently scanned the room for Katherine Harris lapel stickers and then berated staff about how few people were wearing them.

Sometimes, they say, Harris would get upset in front of people, but most often it occurred behind closed doors. Once, she threw her cell phone at a wall. Another time she slammed a computer keyboard into a desk.

"Katherine is an actress. She really missed her calling," said Jamie Miller, Harris' second campaign manager who left in April. "I would always look at her and think 'drama queen.' "

To younger staffers, she would say "What are you, stupid?" or "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard" while complaining the campaign did not have enough Ivy League-educated employees. To older staffers, she would say, "You ruined my life."

"I can't tell you how many times I ruined that woman's life," said Dornan, her first campaign manager.

* * *

Harris often questioned her employees' loyalty and accused them of betraying her. But former staffers say it was Harris who fostered a work environment where loyalty was at issue.

She would assign staffers to small tasks, even if they conflicted with work they had been given by their direct supervisor. She would have low-level staffers give assignments to their supervisors.

Jamie Miller, who left in April, said Harris would frequently tell him that Rollins, whom he considered a mentor, had criticized him.

"You think you're so smart, Ed Rollins doesn't agree with you," Miller said she would say to him. He said he found out later Rollins hadn't said any such thing.

Frequently, she would poll employees about decisions they were not involved in making, then report negative results to the person in charge of the event.

Former staffers said they began to resent co-workers until they realized Harris was pitting one against another.

"She knew how to lodge an insult," said Mike Miller, who is not related to Jamie Miller and who has worked for former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum and former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack.

* * *

Harris often worried about the small things most candidates happily leave to their staff: the booking of an airline ticket, the seating arrangement on the campaign bus, the color of posters.

"She's thick into thin things," Mike Miller said. "She would obsess on the little things."

She sent her business cards back several times as she changed her mind about the format, shade of blue, type of flag design. She would rewrite every speech and press release.

"She gets sidetracked on all these peripheral issues," Dornan said. "They take on a life of their own."

Staffers would give Harris lists of potential donors to call only to find out later that she would rearrange the order, color and font on the spreadsheets.

"She micromanaged to the Nth degree," Dunsmore said. "It was just too much. I watched people just wilt."

Times staff writer Adam C. Smith and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0576.