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The election shows the way we play the game

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 19, 2001

A guy was standing a few steps from me near the gate. We were in the waiting room for a Tampa plane bound for Tallahassee, early in the morning last Nov. 13, when the presidential election was still a seesaw in motion.

The man's dark overnight bag was slumped against his legs, and he was issuing an order to somebody at the other end of the cell phone that was tucked under his chin. "Get me Mac," he said.

Tallahassee has only one Mac, and he belongs to the Republicans: Mac Stipanovich, operative, lobbyist, lawyer, campaign director. So the man with the overnight bag and the cell phone had to be somebody. I introduced myself.

He said his name was Adam Goodman. He lived in Tampa and was a Republican media consultant, paid to keep politicians from making fools of themselves on TV. He was going to Tallahassee to work with Stipanovich and help out Katherine Harris, the secretary of state, he said.

I couldn't publish a word of what he said on the plane. To encourage Goodman to talk, I agreed to go off the record. Last week, Goodman agreed to put it on the record.

What he said then, Secretary Harris, a Republican and Florida co-chair of the Bush campaign, more or less parroted later that day, that the election counting and recounting couldn't drag on. George Bush had won. That was that.

Last month, the New York Times published a long story about how the Republicans fought to hold to their Florida margin. The New York Times reported that Goodman and Stipanovich were literally thick in the middle of it. They worked for at least a couple of days, beginning that day I met Goodman on the plane, in a conference room within Harris' suite in the state Capitol, down the hall from Gov. Jeb Bush's office.

This fact Goodman had never mentioned that day on the plane, and I hadn't thought to ask. Where he and Stipanovich parked themselves has since shocked many reporters, who argued that the secretary of state, though elected in partisan fashion, is supposed to behave in a non-partisan fashion when supervising elections.

My own take was different. Stipanovich and Goodman were guilty of tastelessness, at best.

They didn't even bother so much to keep appearances and advise her from some short distance, like a hotel suite. They could have manipulated Harris via phone, fax or e-mail.

That thought, though, did not long linger.

The Republicans play the hardest of hardball: Their ruthlessness is what makes them so successful, and the Democrats would play the same if they ever get smart enough and the party gets a chance.

Even if Katherine Harris had been inclined to look for non-partisan, skilled advisers who know Florida law, presidential history as well as politics, could she have found anybody qualified?

There is nothing we are so short of as statesmen. If there is no bitterness to your politics now, you are dismissed as a wimp.

Or you are on the sidelines, simply a voter, the target of mass mailings and TV ads, prone to wondering at election season why they're shouting at you.

Adam Goodman is an amiable partisan. He said last week he wasn't paid for his work for Harris. He was honored to be part of history, he said. And once the election crisis became obvious, Harris needed somebody in a hurry. "We didn't have time to go out and do a national search for a communications director," Goodman said. "It stood to reason she'd have to have someone she had confidence in."

He also had no qualms about working out of Harris' office. "There was nothing to hide," he said.

The phone in his south Tampa office rings more now than it did before. He has plenty of work, just as Katherine Harris has plenty of invitations to speak before Republicans across the country.

Their stars glisten. The process remains unredeemed.

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