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Katherine Harris' most steadfast supporter

Anders Ebbeson avoids the spotlight his wife often attracts.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published October 19, 2006


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They met on a blind date at Sarasota’s historic opera house on Pineapple Street, opening night 1996.

The unexpected romance between Katherine Harris and Anders Ebbeson began while watching Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.

The Force of Destiny.

Mutual friends had fixed them up, though at the time they seemed an unlikely match, with vastly different interests and vastly different styles.

Harris, then a state legislator, had an oversized personality and a mountain of ambitions. Ebbeson, a Swedish entrepreneur a dozen years her senior, was calm and dignified, with no interest in politics. He couldn’t even vote.

Yet somehow it worked.

Now, a decade later, Ebbeson stands quietly by his wife — loving and supportive but unmistakably removed — as Harris runs for the U.S. Senate in her toughest race to date.

While Harris faces a grueling uphill battle to unseat Democrat Bill Nelson, her husband rarely appears with her at campaign events or involves himself in campaign decisions.

A millionaire, reportedly worth more than she, Ebbeson leads his own full life, running an international appliance distributing company, traveling the globe and revelling in his own passions from racing cars to cooking gourmet meals.

Harris, now 49, refused to comment for this story. Messages for Ebbeson, 62, were not returned.

In their decade together, Ebbeson has appeared frequently with his wife in the society pages, a must-read in Sarasota, which boasts a refined attitude and a love of the arts. But even after all this time at the edge of the spotlight, he has never spoken more than a few words to the reporters who flock to his wife.

The day before Harris won the Republican primary last month, Ebbeson was asked by the online magazine Salon.com if he knew what he was getting into when he married Harris. He smiled, replying in a Swedish accent:

“I always thought anything could happen with Katherine.”

***

The couple announced their engagement while cruising the Greek Isles with 15 other couples in September 1996. He was 51 and she was 39.

They married in a civil service in Port Charlotte just before Christmas. A week later, they wed again in a religious ceremony at a Swedish church in Paris on New Year’s Eve, followed by a reception at a park that contains every plant mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays.

Many family members attended, including Harris’ parents, wealthy Bartow banker George Harris and his wife, Harriett. Ebbeson’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Louise, was the maid of honor.

Back in Sarasota, hundreds of legislators, lobbyists, friends and family members attended a black-tie reception in the courtyard of the regal Ringling Museum of Art. Friends and news accounts tout the event as a page straight out of The Great Gatsby: tulle decorating the columns, flowers flown in from Europe, guests from around the world.

“He’s totally in love,’’ said David Shoemaker, a Sarasota ophthalmologist and friend. “He looks at her and a smile comes to his face.”

The pairing initially surprised Margaret Wise, a close and longtime friend of Harris. “I would not have thought it,’’ she said recently. “I would not have put them together.”

Stanley Tate, a longtime friend who is serving as Harris’ campaign finance chairman, said Harris and Ebbeson complement each other.

“He really lets her take the front seat. Knowing Katherine, she would push him aside if he didn’t,” he said. “But he tends to tone her down a little, which is good.”

Tate describes Ebbeson as someone who is bashful, almost embarrassed to be in a room full of people he doesn’t know.

“He’s always there with her, polite and gracious,’’ said Kerry Kirschner, a friend and former mayor of Sarasota.

The couple live in the same 6,000-square-foot home that Ebbeson owned with his first wife, in the Bay Isles section of Longboat Key, now worth $2.3-million.

They also own at least three other properties: a $3.9-million waterfront home in Sarasota, which Harris has talked of renovating into her dream home; a $1.1-million townhouse in Washington overlooking the Capitol; and a Sarasota office building valued at $900,000, according to property records.

The couple once owned a home in Sweden, though it’s unclear if they still do.

For both, it was a second marriage.

Harris divorced attorney Thomas Arnold in 1989 after just four years.

Arnold, who now works in Manhattan, did not return phone calls. In 2002, he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune simply that he has “a tremendous amount of respect for Katherine.”

Ebbeson divorced his first wife, Margita, in 1990 after 16 years. The couple’s daughter, Louise, then 14, split her time between her parents, who both continued to live in Longboat Key.

Louise, now 24, was one of eight debutantes in Sarasota and Manatee counties during the 1999-2000 season. She has since graduated from college.

***

Sven Anders Axel Ebbeson was one of three brothers born in Halmstad, a city of nearly 60,000 people in southern Sweden known for its beaches and golf courses.

Ebbeson and his first wife, also Swedish, moved to Sarasota while he worked for his father’s company, Origoverken, a manufacturer of everything from stoves to seatbelts, according to his brother, Bengt Ebbeson,

Anders and Bengt Ebbeson eventually took over the company, which according to newspaper reports at the time had 45 employees. In 1986, the brothers sold it to Eletrolux, a massive global company best known in the United States for vacuum cleaners.

Ebbeson continued to work for Electrolux in Sarasota for a while until he opened his own company, Bengt Ebbeson said.

InterCon Marketing  touts itself on its Web site as a distributor of appliances including microwaves, refrigerators, dishwashers, TVs and lighting for yachts, RVs, hotels, government housing and assisted living facilities.

Ebbson travels the world, flying to Sweden for work at least half a dozen times a year, Bengt Ebbeson said. He still has family there, including a younger brother, a dentist.

Bengt Ebbeson, who lives in Punta Gorda with his wife and two children, said his brother is too busy for his wife’s political career.

“I think he works a lot,” he said. “He is just focused on other things.”

Harris reports assets between $7.7- and $36.8- million, according to the most recently available federal financial disclosure reports. But much of that can be attributed to her husband’s assets, including InterCon which showed a value last year of $5-million to $25-million.

Ed Rollins, Harris’ former top campaign strategist, said Harris’ decision last spring to put millions of her own money into her campaign was one of the rare times she consulted her husband about the race.

She told her staff that she would not touch money from her husband or her family, a fortune built by her grandfather, legendary cattle and citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin, whose name graces the University of Florida football stadium.

***

After years of living in the United States, Ebbeson became a citizen in 2000. He cast his first ballot that year in an election that thrust his wife into the national spotlight.

Harris has credited her husband with helping her get through the scrutiny that came with her role as Florida secretary of state during the bitter 2000 recount.

“I asked him … 'What am I going to do?’ He said, 'Oh, that’s simple. You just have to exercise extraordinary integrity because you have to live with yourself.’”

Before her Senate campaign interrupted their lives, local news reports show Harris and Ebbeson had certain routines:

They ate dinner at the Mediterraneo Italian restaurant in downtown Sarasota and went to see movies on Fridays, cooked out with friends on Saturdays and ordered Chinese takeout on Sundays.

They went boating with Harris, who has called herself a “photorealist painter,’’ sometimes bringing along a sketch pad. They watched Turner classic movies. They recently joined the exclusive members-only Field Club.

But friends say Ebbeson enjoys his own hobbies, too. He plays golf at the private, men’s-only Gator Creek Golf Course. He is a gourmet chef and each year he cooks a Swedish feast — a traditional “smorgasbord” or buffet for Christmas dinner — for friends and family.

Ebbeson sometimes attends events at the local Swedish-American Club, though Harris doesn’t usually go with him. Harris sometimes attends events at the Longboat Key Republican Club, though Ebbeson doesn’t usually go with her.

“He’s an ideal political spouse,” Rollins said. “He is totally supportive but stays away. He doesn’t second-guess anything.”

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

[Last modified October 19, 2006, 22:31:30]


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