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    Reno won't let baggage hold her back

    The former U.S. Attorney General confronts with humor what many see as drawbacks to her chances against Jeb Bush if she is the Democrats' choice.

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 1, 2001

    TAMPA -- Janet Reno has decided how to handle the baggage she brings to her campaign for governor -- head on and with humor.

    "I'm going get a little lapel pin that has three suitcases on it. One says Waco, one says Elian, and one says Parkinson's. And it'll shake a little bit in the wind," she told members of Tampa's Tiger Bay Club on Friday.

    The former U.S. Attorney General and leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate may be a household name, but most voters have only a vague sense of her personality. In Tampa, she fleshed out her image with a speech that was variously sentimental, self-effacing, defiant and blunt.

    She waxed on about the pristine Florida environment of her childhood that's largely gone today. She joked about Saturday Night Live's "Janet Reno's Dance Party" sketch. She dismissed suggestions she should drop out because she can't beat Jeb Bush. And she had no qualms saying Floridians may need to consider higher taxes to meet the state's needs.

    "If you can prove to the taxpayers that you can get the job done and you need more money to do it, I think they're going to be willing to support it," she said, stressing the need for greater investments in education and preventive health care.

    As she does at most of her stump speeches, Reno didn't wait to be asked about high profile controversies. She launched quickly into the seizure of Elian Gonzalez and the raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, where cult leader David Koresh and about 80 followers died.

    On Waco, she noted that federal agents had been killed trying to execute a search warrant. She couldn't wait indefinitely on cooperation from Koresh, who was "going to create his own Armageddon. . . . I accepted the responsibility. I am accountable for it, and the buck stops with me. If people want a different kind of governor, they should find someone else."

    On Elian Gonzalez, nobody disputed that his Cuban father was a good father, she noted. "In those circumstances, a little boy should be with his daddy."

    Addressing her Parkinson's disease, the 63-year-old Miami resident said her hands may shake, but she never would have run if her doctors hadn't assured her the disease would have no impact on her ability to govern.

    She invoked Stephen Hopkins, a Rhode Island delegate who signed the Declaration of Independence with a palsied hand: "After he had signed the Declaration with a spidery scrawl, he said, "My hand may tremble but my heart does not.' "

    Reno is the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic primary against state House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and attorney Bill McBride of Thonotosassa. Some prominent Democrats, however, are grumbling that while she's sure to win the primary she has little chance in the general election against Bush.

    Reno brushed off that suggestion, saying a strong traditional Democrat can win statewide.

    "I haven't seen anything that shows that there's anybody that has any better chance of beating him, and I am going to beat him. I'm going to beat him, by getting out . . . traditional Democratic voters," she said.

    To a smattering of groans from the audience, she added, "If the votes had been counted the way the people who voted intended that they be counted, Al Gore would be president of the United States today, and Florida would have been won by the Democrats."

    Reno drew big applause, though, when she stood by the Clinton administration. Given the scandal-plagued Clinton years, one partisan asked, would she have served in his administration if she knew at the beginning what she knows now? Reno answered quickly and firmly: "Yes."

    Reno has been campaigning most actively in South Florida Democratic strongholds, but she spent most of Friday in Tampa. After the Tiger Bay speech, she attended a Mass for attorneys sponsored by Tampa Catholic Lawyers Guild and planned to speak at the Tampa Bay Federal Bar Association.

    - Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or

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