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Harris finds strength in Bible's Esther

Florida's embattled secretary of state has responded personally to few of the 4,000 e-mails she's received since the election chaos began.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- In the most trying times of her political life, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is turning to prayer and her favorite Biblical figure, Esther, for solace and guidance.

"I reread a book about Esther last night," Harris revealed to one of the thousands of people who have sent her e-mails since Election Day. "She has always been the specific character in the Bible that I have admired."

In the Old Testament story, the beautiful Jewish Queen Esther of Persia risks her life to thwart a plot to destroy the Jewish people. The Jewish festival Purim celebrates the victory over that attempted genocide centuries ago.

"Esther has long served as one of my favorite role models," Harris replied to a couple who e-mailed her a Bible verse this week.

As the state's chief election officer, Harris has faced enormous pressure since the presidential election in Florida essentially wound up as a tie between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Harris, a Republican who served as a co-chairwoman for Bush's Florida campaign, has been attacked as a political crony unable to make fair decisions as Florida moves through vote recounts and lawsuits to determine who won. Relying on advice from her attorneys, Harris has decided not to accept manual vote recounts that Democrats think could tip the race in Gore's favor.

With the presidential election hanging in the balance, little is known about how Harris is thinking -- she remains largely holed up in her Capitol office consulting with a handful of attorneys and close advisers.

But her responses to e-mails from citizens provide a glimpse of a woman asking for, and relying on, prayer.

"Please pray for me and our nation . . . for wisdom and understanding," Harris wrote J.R. Knight of Gulf Breeze, who told Harris he admired her for her courage.

Republicans Charles and Gail Whatley told Harris: "I know you will be character assassinated, but please continue to stand strong for what is right."

Harris replied: "Thanks for your encouraging e-mail . . . Actually my sister and I prayed for the full armour this morning . . . and Queen Esther has been a wonderful role model."

In response to a public records' request by the Times, the secretary of state's office released more than 4,000 e-mails sent to Harris. Most strongly support Harris as she faces a barrage of criticism and personal insults.

"You're a great Floridian," wrote Libby Teague. "History will show it took a woman to have the guts to stand up to those who are attempting to steal this election from Gov. Bush. God bless you!"

Said Ron Stevens of La Vale, Md.: "You are a breath of fresh air coming from that horrible stench of political posturing coming from the Democrats who are trying to subvert Florida's laws."

But not everyone is a fan.

"I am outraged by your decision to stop hand counting of the votes . . . Are we living in Cuba, Madam Secretary of State?" wrote Marcia Kaleky Stern of Boynton Beach.

"Your actions in this matter must be causing our forefathers to roll in their graves all the way to the ocean shores. They worked hard to create a fair system. Your actions are partisan," wrote Mary Barber of Bellows Falls, Vt.

A group called Citizens for a Fair Florida Vote e-mailed several form letters demanding a re-vote in Florida because of voting problems, such as more than 19,000 votes being thrown out in Palm Beach County.

Harris responded personally to very few people. Most responses were form letters, followed by a copy of Harris' written statement earlier this week that went over the process by which Florida's votes will be certified.

Republican women in the Florida House held a news conference Friday to show their support for Harris, who has expressed frustration that members of her party have not come to her defense while she has been attacked by Democrats.

And incoming House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, issued a written statement after a Times story revealed Harris' frustration.

"Some have expressed concern that when the Gore attack dogs and media have questioned her integrity, the Republican Party has not leapt to her defense," Fasano said. "There should be no question that Secretary Harris has not only the full support of her party, but also the support of many fair-minded Democrats and independents."

Harris, 43, took office in 1999 after serving four years in the state Senate. In addition to elections, she oversees the state's libraries, arts, cultural and historical resources. She has focused primarily on international trade and cultural missions since taking office, generating controversy because she has spent more than $106,000 of taxpayer money traveling around the world.

Harris, a millionaire, is the granddaughter of the late Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a Florida citrus and cattle tycoon.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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