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    Secretary of State Harris to run for U.S. House

    After the Sept. 11 attacks, she says, "I can certainly fight for our country in this capacity.'' That garners criticism.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 3, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- Secretary of State Katherine Harris will take the fame she gained in last year's bitter presidential recount and try to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    "In light of the recent tragedy, I am more committed than ever to serving this president and our nation," Harris said Tuesday as she announced plans to seek the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Dan Miller, a Bradenton Republican.

    "Everyone wants to do something. I can't put on a uniform and fight, but I can certainly fight for our country in this capacity," the 44-year-old Republican added, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

    Harris gained international attention and became a hero to Republicans throughout the nation after she declared George W. Bush the winner of a whisker-close presidential race in Florida. That decision gave Florida's electoral votes and the presidency to Bush and left Democrats across the nation bitter.

    Late night talk show hosts and national columnists made fun of Harris, questioned her makeup and nicknamed her "Cruella de Vil," the dark-haired woman who is the villain in the Disney movie, 101 Dalmatians.

    Harris says she has received encouragement from local, state and national GOP leaders to seek the congressional seat, which represents a Republican area south of Tampa Bay. Harris believes she can persuade even the Democrats who have pilloried her to vote for her.

    Harris strongly defends her handling of the presidential election, but does acknowledge that in retrospect "perhaps" she would have made a different decision when asked to be one of the eight co-chairs of Bush's presidential campaign in Florida.

    That honorary position gave critics ammunition when she helped decide the disputed election.

    Her entry into a political race sparked an outburst of criticism from Democrats who accused her of invoking the terrorist attack for political reasons. They questioned her fitness to serve in any office.

    "She is a Democratic get-out-the-vote machine for us," said Florida Democrat Party spokesman Tony Welch. "She will turn out a lot of our folks all around the state."

    Welch said Floridians should question not only Harris' role in last year's election, but also her willingness to use the victims of terrorism for her own political gain.

    Others joined the criticism.

    "If the citizens of Sarasota are foolish enough to vote for a woman whose main qualifications are treachery and crookedness, then they'll deserve what they get," said Alan Dershowitz, the liberal Harvard law professor who called her a crook during last year's presidential recount.

    If Floridians vote for Harris because her name has been in the news, Florida will next have O.J. Simpson running for public office "because his name is even better known," Dershowitz suggested.

    "She is a woman utterly unqualified to hold public office," Dershowitz added. He also questioned her past involvement in a campaign money raising scheme that led to a federal indictment of officials at Riscorp, a Sarasota company that funneled money to her Senate campaign in 1994.

    Harris' campaign manager was cited as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal prosecution of the Riscorp officials who gave money to employees so they could donate it to Harris and other politicians in violation of state campaign laws.

    "I learned from Riscorp more than anything," Harris said. "I had no knowledge of anything that was going on."

    Although the presidential recount was controversial, Harris said she believes Florida has emerged from the crisis with the best election reform in the country and will soon have laws making it easier for disabled voters to cast a ballot.

    A former state senator, Harris made her first statewide race in 1998, when she ran for secretary of state and defeated incumbent Sandra Mortham in the Republican primary.

    Aside from the election recount, she has sparked other controversy. Legislative leaders have questioned her frequent foreign travel and the emphasis she has placed on international relations since taking office.

    Harris defends her international relations work, saying Florida has benefited from it.

    Last week state auditors criticized her failure to properly report some state expenditures and the failure of her office to monitor personal calls on state cellular telephones. In addition, her own inspector general was fired after he attempted to point out that Harris was in violation of state laws that require inspectors to report directly to agency heads.

    Harris cannot seek re-election as secretary of state because voters decided in 1998 to make it an appointive office when her current term ends in January 2003.

    Harris will be running in a district that has been historically safe for Republicans. It currently includes Sarasota and Manatee counties, the southern rim of Hillsborough and part of Charlotte, but it will be redrawn in next year's redistricting. Officials in Sarasota say she is a virtual shoo-in for election.

    Harris has only token Republican opposition from Chester Flake, a computer consultant who says he believes Harris should resign from her state job while running a campaign for a federal position. Flake questions whether Harris should continue in a role that oversees state elections while appearing on the ballot.

    "That's kind of silly," Harris said when asked about Flake's demand.

    The Rev. Charles McKenzie, 45, a Manatee County schoolteacher who lives in Sarasota, announced Tuesday that he will run for the Democratic nomination. McKenzie is a state coordinator for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.

    "I believe it is time for someone who knows politics from education and experience to run, not just big money and notoriety," McKenzie said.

    Gov. Jeb Bush said he plans to support Harris.

    He dismissed any suggestion that she should resign, saying state law doesn't require it.

    Is Harris tough enough to withstand the slings and arrows of a nasty campaign?

    "I don't know about being tough enough," Harris said Tuesday. "But I am very eager to let people have a look at my qualifications."

    And she would welcome any Democrat who wants to run against her, she added -- especially the liberal Dershowitz if he would like to take a swing at it.

    - Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

    Katherine Harris

    AGE: 44

    BORN: Key West

    EDUCATION: Agnes Scott College, B.A. in history; Harvard University, master's degree in public administration.

    POLITICAL HISTORY: State Senate, 1994-1998; secretary of state, 1998-present.

    BACKGROUND: Fourth-generation Floridian and granddaughter of the late Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a citrus and cattle rancher widely known in Florida political circles.

    PERSONAL: Married to Anders Ebbeson, a Swedish businessman.

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