tampabay.com

100 days later, Jennings still campaigns

Jennings - the-almost-but-not-quite-congresswoman - spends her time meeting with Democratic House members, attending her party's events and, of course, calling her own contributors for donations.

By ANITA KUMAR
Published February 18, 2007


WASHINGTON - Every couple of weeks, Christine Jennings flies from Florida and camps out in a room at the Democratic National Headquarters where members of Congress sit and make fundraising calls for hours at a time.

Jennings spends her time meeting with Democratic House members, attending her party's events, like a recent retreat for Democrats in Virginia, and, of course, calling her own contributors for donations.

As each day passes chances become more unlikely that her one-time rival, Republican Vern Buchanan, will be stripped of his U.S. House seat in favor of her.

But Jennings still talks as if she has a chance to win the 2006 Sarasota area congressional seat. And she does it with the same vigor she showed before Election Day when she lost by a few hundred votes.

"I don't think it's been that long," she said.

But many people, including some of her would-be colleagues, seem to have moved on. Or are trying to.

Fundraising helps pay Jennings' legal bills

After all, Buchanan has been in office more than six weeks now, introducing bills, voting on legislation and meeting with constituents. Even Democratic House members talk as if Buchanan is one of them.

"We made a decision to seat him ... and with that decision comes the responsibility to work with him," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, a Democrat whose South Florida district stretches from Palm Beach County to the west coast.

"You have to take it as it is," said Boca Raton Democratic Rep. Ron Klein. "He's a sitting member."

But behind the scenes, a host of backers are helping Jennings keep her fight in the Florida courts and in Congress going.

Jennings, a wealthy retired banker from Sarasota, has raised about $500,000 through a variety of recount funds in the three months following the Nov. 7 election. There's the "Florida 13 Recount Fund" and the "Jennings Recount Fund."

The Florida Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and EMILY's List, which helps female candidates who support abortion rights, have all helped collect donations.

Some checks are for a mere $25 from individuals in far-off states. Others are for several thousand dollars, like the $5,000 she received from the Friends of Congressman George Miller and the $7,000 from the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association Political Action League.

Most of the money goes toward her massive legal bills, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, for attorneys in Washington, Tallahassee and Miami. But some is spent on her still-opened "Jennings for Congress" campaign office in downtown Sarasota and her two employees, an office manager and a communications director to coordinate interviews with CNN's Lou Dobbs and the New York Times, among others.

Jennings asks the House to intervene

Jennings has filed suit in Leon County, asking for a new vote, and also has taken the extreme measure of asking the House to intervene.

At issue: touch screen voting machines in Sarasota County that recorded that more than 18,000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not vote for either candidate, a rate higher than in other counties in the district.

The case has been tied up in courts for months, and any action by the House - if there is any - will likely wait until the lawsuit is settled.

But Jennings insists a lot has happened in the 90 days since the election:

- Republican Gov. Charlie Crist announced he wants to spend more than $30-million to switch the state to paper ballots by 2008.

- A bill has been introduced in the U.S. House to add a paper trail nationwide.

- A U.S. Senate committee demands an examination of the disputed Sarasota County voting machines.

- The prominent former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton wrote a column on election reform, though it ran in a tiny, twice-weekly Iowa newspaper.

"If you take the 90 days since the election, if you look at the progress that we have made on election reform," Jennings said, "that's four major things."

Jennings says she's been surprised so much has happened to bolster her case and election reform in general. Each new action fuels her determination to do more.

She travels frequently between Sarasota and Tallahassee, sometimes flying to Washington for hearings or New York for interviews.

Buchanan has filed for re-election in 2008

She meets with election reform advocates, like Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida and Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, gets advice from the group that helps Democrats get elected to the House and mixes with freshmen congressmen at receptions where she has been invited. She even attended President Bush's State of the Union address last month.

But she said she has not asked to meet with at least two influential Democrats who could help her: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, whose office is up one floor in the building she calls her home away from home.

While Jennings is still campaigning for '06, Buchanan has filed re-election papers for '08.

The Longboat Key Republican recently introduced several bills, including one about insurance with Brooksville Republican Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite.

"Certainly Ms. Jennings is free to pursue any avenue she wants, but most members want to move on," Brown-Waite said.

Buchanan says he tries not to dwell on the situation even though people often ask him about it.

He smiles and calls Jennings "my favorite constituent."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this story. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202 463-0576.