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Governor's phone call a sign of the times


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

Nastiness and partisan mischief, hallmarks of Washington politics for the last several years and, more recently, during the Florida election recount, have taken root in Tallahassee.

Nastiness and partisan mischief, hallmarks of Washington politics for the last several years and, more recently, during the Florida election recount, have taken root in Tallahassee.

That's certainly how Gov. Jeb Bush sees it.

Since last year's bitter election battle, the governor has been the target of rampant rumors of extramarital affairs. The whispering has permeated Tallahassee, and reporters from both inside and outside Florida have been chasing the whispers. Nothing credible has been found.

Until now the governor had refused to discuss the talk. Privately he has told friends that he and his wife, Columba, have heard some of it, are hurt by it, but believed that to deny it was to dignify it.

But Friday he decided to talk, at least to a few people. Why? Maybe it's because he is closer to announcing his re-election plans. Or perhaps it was jarring to see a rumor of infidelity posted on a Web site for a few hours last week by some of his political enemies. Maybe it's simply rumor fatigue.

So Bush called a handful of the state's top political reporters and in a series of extraordinary phone calls declared emphatically that the rumors are not true.

He says talk of affairs with two high-profile state leaders -- Katherine Harris and Cynthia Henderson -- are wild lies. He has not been alone in a room with either official.

And he's escorted by Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers everywhere he goes, so it's crazy to think he can do much of anything unobserved. Bush and his wife have told us in recent weeks that their marriage is strong, and he obviously does not like the toll this ugly side of public life takes on Columba and their children.

Bush, his tone somber but not distraught, talked to a few reporters on a "background basis" -- no quotes allowed -- to say he believes the rumors are smear tactics by malicious enemies. Such tactics, he believes, grew from the political culture that erupted during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Even Bush's own enemies say he's right about that part.

Earlier this week a Web site called Democrats.com became the first to actually publish one of the rumors, suggesting a romantic relationship between Bush and Henderson, who runs the Department of Management Services. The item said Henderson's office was part of the governor's suite, suggesting that such proximity made their liaison simple and believable.

I tracked down the owners of Democrats.com, which has no official affiliation with the Democratic Party. The author of the Bush piece is Robert Fertik, the former head of a group called Democrats for Choice.

When I told him that Henderson has no office in the governor's suite -- in fact her offices are miles away -- he pulled the item off the site and said it was "a work in progress."

Still, Fertik insisted: "We have sources we consider credible who are aware that the rumors are true." He would offer no evidence.

The administrator of the Web site is David Lytel, a consultant from Syracuse, N.Y., who once ran a White House Web site for President Clinton. Lytel, says a large community of Democratic activists started the site a year ago in an effort to publish stories that are not in the mainstream press -- much the way Matt Drudge and Lucianne Goldberg circulated some of the thinking of the right-wing Clinton haters.

"Although we are independent of the party, our goal is to make the party more powerful," Lytel said.

Democrats.com collected signatures for petitions protesting the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, urged Congress to object to Florida's electors voting for George W. Bush and opposed the Senate confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Bush doesn't suggest a vast left-wing conspiracy but apparently decided to talk to a few people about it because he doesn't see much end to this relentless pursuit by his enemies.

Neither Henderson nor Harris would comment on Friday. The Harris rumor in particular seems to have withered if for no other reason than the growing knowledge that she and Bush are not particularly friendly and that Bush supported Harris' opponent in the 1998 GOP primary for secretary of state.

Virtually every reporter in the state Capitol has chased one or another of these rumors during the last six months. Many "tips" of the supposed infidelities have come from employees at the Board of Regents, an agency Bush has pushed to abolish, or other state employees at a time when the governor has seriously angered employee unions with a push for laws that will make it easier to fire those who now have career service protections.

Political observers in Florida expect Bush to seek re-election although he says he won't make a decision until June when he has finished work on legislation approved during the session that ended May 4.

The persistent rumors of infidelity have spawned a separate set of rumors of marital distress and the notion that Mrs. Bush doesn't want her husband to seek re-election. Yet two weeks ago, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Mrs. Bush declared that she definitely wants the governor to run again.

Bush says he will announce his decision in June, but last week while traveling around the state to sign bills, there was a slip of the lip.

As Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, recalled a campaign bus trip through Brevard County during the last campaign, Bush said, "We'll be back to do that again."

"I mean, I'll surely be campaigning for someone," Bush quickly added when asked if he had just let his plans slip.

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