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Secretary of state speaks: 'I know I followed the law'

In her first interview since the election, the secretary of state talks about the process.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Secretary of State Katherine Harris says she did nothing wrong.

"I believe George W. Bush won the election through the vote of the people," she said Thursday night on ABC's PrimeTime in her first interview since the historic election that thrust her into the national spotlight. "No matter what, I had to act with integrity."

Harris, one of the co-chairs of President-elect George W. Bush's Florida campaign, dismissed questions by ABC's Diane Sawyer about whether her decisions that stalled manual recounts helped the Texas governor win the election.

Bush ultimately won the state's 25 electoral votes and the presidency more than five weeks after the election, following a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that ended the hand recounts.

Since the election, Harris said, she has not talked to Bush. She said she has no plans to join his administration, discounting recent speculation in the Washington Post that she could become Bush's special envoy to Latin America.

"Certainly that is a dream for everyone," Harris said of some type of ambassadorship, "but right now I have a job to do and I am very focused. As long as I do a good job, I believe the future is going to take care of itself."

In fact, Harris said, the only time she spoke to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was before dawn on the morning after Election Day. She said the governor awakened her at home and asked her questions about the requirements for an automatic recount.

She put on a T-shirt and sweatpants and drove to the Capitol.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Florida say Harris' potential as a candidate for U.S. Senate or other statewide office has been compromised by the election controversy. But they agree that she has become wildly popular among Republicans.

One possibility: a run for Congress in a safe Republican district in 2002, when the elected secretary of state's position will be eliminated.

"That is something she needs to ponder," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said this week of a possible congressional race. "She has certainly become a darling of our base, an icon with the Republican rank-and-file."

Harris is scheduled to testify today before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is investigating whether minority voters were victims of discrimination on election day.

The Republican dodged questions Thursday night about whether she would have preferred a statewide recount.

She said there is no way to know whether Vice President Al Gore would have overtaken Bush if recounts had continued. She did suggest that Gore's post-election strategy may have backfired.

By pushing for recounts before Harris and other state officials certified the election results, Gore left less time for his challenge.

During the post-election drama, Harris was regularly lampooned on late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live. Her wardrobe and makeup were the source of endless jokes. A Democratic political strategist compared her to Cruella De Vil, the character from 101 Dalmatians.

"It was just silly," Harris said. "You know, if that's the worst thing they can say about me after they've gone through my high school and college and talked to friends and former boyfriends. ... I have many friends that were in TV every day -- it was my friends that were men -- and they were wearing much more makeup than I was, and I didn't think that was fair, because here they weren't being attacked and I was."

Still, Harris managed to joke about the situation. She recalled one instance where she was recognized by a clerk while in a check-out line at Target.

"The woman looked at my credit card and looked at me, and she goes, "Katherine Harris,' " she recounted. "And I said, "Yeah, I only have on one layer of makeup. I'm incognito.' "

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