Last winter, Katherine Harris, a former real estate broker from Sarasota, flew to New Hampshire with other Floridians to campaign for George W. Bush. Going door-to-door with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other state Republicans, she handed out orange-shaped stickers and even kissed two lapdogs on their noses while meeting voters in one Manchester home.
Today, Harris, Florida's secretary of state, announced she would end the state's presidential vote recount on Tuesday--a decision that, if it holds up in court, would enable the Bush campaign to succeed in preventing what a spokesman said was Vice President Gore's attempt to "ignore the law so that he can overturn the results of this election."
Warren Christopher, leader of the Gore effort in Florida, said after an eight-minute meeting with Harris at her ornate capitol office this morning that her deadline was "arbitrary and unreasonable." Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, accused her of being "a lackey for the Bush campaign."
A flamboyant and controversial figure in Florida politics, Harris, 43, is not close personally to the Bush family--Jeb Bush endorsed her opponent in a primary fight last year. And her Republican allies say that in insisting on Tuesday's deadline, she was simply enforcing state law.
"She's not doing anything on behalf of a party," said Sandra Mortham, a health care lobbyist who lost to Harris in the 1998 primary. "She's doing what the statutes tell her to do."
But there is no doubt that Harris is closely allied with Jeb Bush, and keenly interested in the election of his brother. In addition to her work in New Hampshire for George W. Bush she was a co-chair of his Florida campaign and a delegate to the Republican convention. She recruited retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a prominent Bush supporter who taped phone messages for Bush in Florida, to do a taxpayer-funded get-out-the-vote commercial just before the election, drawing a rebuke from the watchdog group Common Cause.
Harris, "when wearing that hat as head of elections, has a responsibility to be nonpartisan," said Ben Wilcox, the Florida director for Common Cause.
As a result of a change in the state constitution, the job of secretary of state will be eliminated in 2002, and Harris has said she is interested in running for the U.S. Senate. But she would bring a decidedly mixed record to any race.
Even top Republicans say Harris has shown little interest in the election law side of her job. While her predecessor was credited with making campaign finance information more readily available to the public, Harris has made few proposals in the area of election reform. And as she has made these important decisions over the past few days, she has done so with senior staffers at her side who are relatively new to her department. Since Harris took office, there has been a significant level of turnover of senior-level staffers, including in the division of elections.
Though the secretary of state's job is traditionally one for internal matters such as elections and corporate governance, Harris has seen her job as promoting the state overseas. She has flown to Barbados, Rio de Janiero and Sydney, spending upwards of $400 a night for hotels at times. She has spent more than $100,000 on travel, and her expenses last year were nearly triple those of the governor.
Energetic and ambitious, Harris benefited from her powerful family when she first ran for the state Senate in 1994. Her grandfather, Ben Hill Griffin, a cattle and citrus magnate, served in the state House and Senate and the University of Florida's football stadium is named after him. Harris, herself reported to be worth $6 million, went to school at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, and earned a master's degree in international trade from Harvard while serving in the state Senate in 1996. She worked for IBM and then in real estate.
While in the state Senate, Harris became ensnarled in a scandal involving Riscorp, a Florida insurance company that made illegal contributions to dozens of political candidates and committees, including $20,600 to her 1994 campaign. Employees were asked to make contributions on behalf of Riscorp and then were reimbursed through fake bonus checks or fake expense accounts. A memo written by Harris to Riscorp's founder later appeared in Florida newspapers: "Katherine's office called and asked if we could give them different addresses to list for each of the checks."
Harris denied knowledge of the matter, returned the money and was cleared in a state investigation, though her campaign director was an unindicted "co-conspirator." Five people from Riscorp pleaded guilty and the firm's founder served time in prison.
Harris defeated Mortham, the incumbent secretary of state, in a bitter Republican primary in 1998 after Mortham, who had been Jeb Bush's running mate, was dropped from the ticket amid controversy. Harris attacked her for using private donations to a nonprofit group to promote herself.
Mortham today called Harris's campaign "very aggressive, much more aggressive than we had seen on the Florida scene."
In March 1999, just a few months after taking office, Harris began eyeing a promotion: the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Connie Mack. With a net worth of more than $6 million, Harris said at the time she would be willing to finance a campaign out of her own pocket. Asked how much she would spend, she replied: "Whatever it would take." She eventually decided against running and Rep. Bill McCollum became the party's nominee, losing last week to Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson.
As one of several elected members of the Florida cabinet, Harris has been a reliable vote for Bush, supporting his controversial school voucher program and rarely disagreeing with him.
Harris's office is just down the hall from Bush's, but according to Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political scientist who was appointed by Harris to chair an elections commission, "They're not close personal friends. Never by any stretch has she been part of the intimate kitchen cabinet of Governor Bush."
Van Poole, a former Republican state party chairman and state senator who is now a lobbyist, said it is likely Harris is keeping Bush informed of what she is doing, but he believes Bush's decision to remove himself from the recount process is real. "He bends over backward to avoid stuff like that," Poole said.
Harris, for her part, has not spoken publicly since vowing last week to proceed "with all due speed, but with a determination to ensure the full accuracy and independence of this process."
Milbank reported from Florida, Becker from Washington.