It was the day before Thanksgiving, but the 2000 presidential election was far from over in Florida, where the tortured tug-of-war over a recount was about to trigger a melee.
On election night two weeks earlier, news anchors had awarded the Sunshine State’s crucial 25 electoral college votes to Al Gore, then to George W. Bush, before finally admitting that Florida was simply too close to call.
Gore had phoned Bush to concede only to recant as the gap between the candidates shrank to several hundred votes in the state, with thousands of “hanging chads” and “pregnant chads” and “dimpled chads” and “pimpled chads” to contest.
“Battling On, Chad Infinitum,” ran a headline in The Washington Post.
“Chad Nauseam,” quipped the New York Post.
But now, 15 days after the last vote was cast, the post-election battle for the ballots grew even uglier.
As the most populous of the four Florida counties where the vote count was fiercely contested, Miami-Dade was the front line for recount efforts.
Joe Geller was deep in the trenches. The county’s Democratic Party chairman was worried that thousands of Miami-Dade ballots might have been affected by a voting machine glitch, potentially costing Gore the election. So on Nov. 22, he headed to the drab government high-rise in downtown Miami where a manual recount was underway.
But when he arrived, he found the lobby and elections office filled with several dozen protesters — many of them in suit jackets and button-down shirts.
Geller had walked into the “Brooks Brothers riot,” a protest organized by Republican campaign operatives, congressional staffers and lawyers.
When Geller asked election officials for a sample ballot to test his voting machine theory, the GOP operatives suddenly surrounded him, accusing him of stealing ballots to try to influence the election, he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview this week.
“This one guy was tripping me and pushing me and kicking me,” recalled Geller, who is now a state legislator. “At one point, I thought if they knocked me over, I could have literally got stomped to death.”
Brad Blakeman, a Bush campaign operative who proudly admits to coordinating what he prefers to call the “Brooks Brothers Rebellion,” denies that things got violent.
“That’s all bulls---,” he told The Post. “There was no violence. There was no threatening behavior.”
Yet the two men agree on a couple of key points.
First, that the episode played a key role in clinching the election for Bush.
And second, that the situation in Florida today is eerily similar to that of 18 years ago.
On Thursday afternoon, the state ordered a manual recount of results in the U.S. Senate race, where about 12,600 votes separated Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson from Republican Rick Scott, the state’s governor. Earlier in the day, one county said it would miss an afternoon deadline for completing a machine recount and a federal judge ruled that thousands of rejected ballots should be reconsidered.
Once again, Republicans are crying foul, including President Trump.
“There are echoes of 2000 that I find very troubling,” Geller said.
“It’s exactly the same,” Blakeman said. “It’s a breakdown of the integrity of the system.”
Floridians or ‘foreign interlopers’?
As a senior adviser on the Bush campaign, Blakeman had been put in charge of the election night festivities in Austin. But when it became clear that there would be no festivities until things were figured out in Florida, he found himself on a flight to Miami.
Unlike the Gore campaign, which focused on filing motions in Florida courts to keep the recount going in key counties such as Miami-Dade, the Bush campaign waged a broader, costlier effort on multiple fronts, Blakeman said.
“It was a three-pronged effort,” he said. “It was a court battle. It was a recount organization. And it was also a PR effort because, although the voting effort ended, the campaign never did until there was a definitive and defined winner.”
Working with about 20 paid GOP staffers or congressional aides and a small fleet of Republican lawyers — including Ted Cruz — Blakeman said the mission was simple.
“We were ahead,” he said. “And the goal was never to be behind.”
Once on the ground, Blakeman said he and his fellow GOP operatives set about connecting with local conservative leaders and Cuban radio stations, which encouraged people to protest.
Democrats "tried to initially allege that all these foreign interlopers were coming down,” Blakeman said. “But the people who showed up at the local recount centers were all local people. I asked them to take out licenses to show they were from Florida.”
Geller disputes that.
“Nobody was in guayaberas,” he said, referring to the shirts popular in Miami and the Caribbean. “These were out-of-towners. … They were tweedy. They weren’t dressed [for Miami]. Yeah, it was November. But they were dressed the way someone would in Washington in November."
Some GOP staffers allegedly tried to hide who they were.
“Like Marjorie Strayer, who tells reporters she’s just a Virginian on vacation in Miami,” wrote Jake Tapper in his book on the election, “Down & Dirty.” “It turns out she’s an aide to Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican of New Mexico.”
Blakeman said he was the one who came up with the soon-to-be infamous nickname for the group.
“We all had Brooks Brothers blazers,” he said. “We could have popped out of the catalogue.”
One photo of protesters inside the election office shows almost a dozen out-of-state GOP operatives, shouting and waving their arms.
Perhaps the most famous operative on the scene was Nixon’s “dirty trickster” himself: Roger Stone.
In a 2008 New Yorker profile, Stone claimed he had been recruited by none other than James Baker III, the former secretary of state leading the Bush recount team, and that it was Stone’s idea to court protesters via Cuban radio.
“The idea we were putting out there was that this was a left-wing power grab by Gore, the same way Fidel Castro did it in Cuba,” he told Jeffrey Toobin. "We were very explicitly drawing that analogy.”
Stone claimed he ran the Brooks Brothers riot from a Winnebago parked near the election office.
“I set up my command center there," he told Toobin. "I had walkie-talkies and cell phones, and I was in touch with our people in the building. Our whole idea was to shut the recount down. That was why we were there. We had the frequency to the Democrats’ walkie-talkies and were listening to their communications, but they were so disorganized that we didn’t learn much that was useful.”
Blakeman says he was the one in the Winnebago, and he never saw Stone.
“Roger says a lot of things that aren’t true,” he said. “If he was there, everybody would know it, because nobody can miss Roger Stone.”(That idea is backed up by none other than Donald Trump, who Stone consulted on a possible 2000 presidential run. “Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told Toobin. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.” Tapper’s book, meanwhile, does include a Stone sighting in the Winnebago but identifies Blakeman as the man behind the effort.)
According to Blakeman, the GOP operatives approached the recount with the same discipline and vigor as the election campaign. They met every morning in their hotel before heading to the elections office to observe and protest, and again each evening. And everything they did was with an eye on the media.
“It had to be a three-legged stool. We had to fight in the courts, in the recount centers and in the streets — in public opinion,” Blakeman said. He dressed up two staffers as a turkey and a pilgrim with a sign that said “stuff the turkey, not the ballot box.” He put another in a Grinch outfit, calling him the Gore-inch who instead of stealing Christmas, stole the election. He flew an anti-Gore banner over the city from an airplane, handed out free “Don’t be had by a chad” T-shirts and gave away “Sore/Loserman” “crying” towels.
“We took it to farce, because [the recount] became crazy,” he said. “We had to show people how crazy and absurd this whole system was.”
In contrast, the Gore campaign didn’t seem concerned about the optics on the ground, just the situation in the courts, Blakeman said.
“Gore left a leg off the stool, and that’s why the stool fell," he said.
And so it was that when Geller showed up at the courthouse on Nov. 22 to grab a sample ballot, he found himself surrounded not by sympathetic Democrats but by angry GOP operatives.
‘I’m a lawyer. I’m not a thug.’
The scene in the plaza outside the elections office that day was “volatile,” Toobin wrote. Two days earlier, county officials had decided to do a manual recount of more than 650,000 ballots. But as a deadline drew nearer, they decided to instead focus only on 10,750 ballots that had been rejected by computer tabulators.
That decision enraged Blakeman and his GOP colleagues, who claimed the three-person canvassing board was gaming the system to ensure Gore came out on top.
In the plaza, Rep. John Sweeney — a Republican from New York whom George W. Bush would later dub “Congressman Kick-Ass” for his ruthlessness — said the board had bowed to the “Democratic machine.”
By the time Geller stepped off the elevator and into the elections office to grab a sample ballot, the Brooks Brothers riot was well underway with protesters shouting “voter fraud” and “let us in,” according to the New York Times.
“They were banging on windows,” he said. “People [in the office] were scared.”
As an elections officer handed him the sample ballot — clearly labeled as such, he said — a GOP organizer with a clipboard started shouting: “He stole a ballot.”
Geller quickly got back in the elevator. A group of protesters followed him.
“These people who had been kicking me were suddenly very quiet,” he said of the elevator ride. “When we got to the bottom, it started back up again. They were chasing me, and I was just trying to get to the exit.”
One man in particular seemed to be “setting a pick” on Geller, he recalled.
“He would jump in front of me and stop, so I’d run into him,” he said. At one point, the man threw himself into Geller before delivering a warning.
“If you do that again, I’ll be forced to defend myself," Geller recalled the man saying.
The scene was captured in the Times and Tapper’s book.
“The crowd is pulling at the cops, pulling at Geller,” Tapper wrote. “It’s insanity!”
“Several angry Republicans, many of whom had acted as observers during the recount, surrounded ... Geller ... in the lobby of the building and accused him of slipping a ballot in his back pocket in the tabulation room,” wrote Dana Canedy and Dexter Filkins for the Times. "Soon, about a dozen sheriff’s deputies surrounded Mr. Geller, as the crowd, which had quickly grown to more than 100 people, yelled “cuff him” and “busted.”
Another Democratic official told reporters he was punched and kicked, as well.
When Geller told authorities what was going on, however, the deputies escorted him back upstairs to see the election officials, who confirmed his account, and then to his car.
He got home just in time to switch on the television and see the Miami-Dade canvassing board pull an extraordinary about-face, voting to abandon the manual recount altogether and potentially depriving the Gore campaign of hundreds, if not thousands, of votes they hoped to pick up in the county.
All sides admitted the Brooks Brothers riot played a decisive role.
“This was perceived as not being an open and fair process,” said David Leahy, the elections supervisor and a board member, according to the Times. “That weighed heavily on our minds.”
“I think the board must have searched their hearts deeply and changed their position when they realized that the results would not be deemed legitimate,” Miguel DeGrandy, a GOP lawyer, told the same newspaper.
“We scared the crap out of them when we descended on them,” Blakeman recalled. “They knew what they were doing was breaking the rules and totally subjective, so they all met and decided to put an end to it.”
Geller has a darker view of the demonstration that ended the recount.
“Anybody who says it was unrelated to the intimidation and violence floating around there is not telling the truth. I saw it with my own eyes," said Geller. "Violence, fear and physical intimidation affected the outcome of a lawful elections process. I think that’s pretty bad.”
Blakeman, who is now a political consultant and occasional Fox News pundit, acknowledged that history had not been kind to the Brooks Brothers rioters.
“They tried to paint it that we were thugs and were rewarded for our thuggery with prime positions in the White House," he said. “I’m a lawyer. I’m not a thug. We never broke the law. It wasn’t our intent to do that. It was our intent to enforce the law.
“We got some blowback afterwards, but so what? We won,” he said. “I became member of [George W. Bush]'s senior staff. That’s hardly a job for a thug.”
Echoes 18 years later
Both men see echoes of the fraught 2000 Florida recount in the fallout from the 2018 midterms.
Eighteen years ago, Bush was coy in his criticism of the recount. When his springer spaniel interrupted a news conference at his Austin ranch, the Texas governor interpreted for reporters.
“Sorry,” he said. “The dog wanted to have a few comments. What she says was, ‘Let’s finish the recount.’ ”
This time, Republicans have openly accused Democrats of trying to steal the election during the recount.
Gov. Rick Scott — ahead of incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by less than 13,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast — warned of “rampant fraud” in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Trump tweeted that he was sending federal lawyers to “expose the FRAUD!”
“It’s all being repeated,” said Blakeman, who said the only difference was the numbers are much more in Scott’s favor than they were for Bush in 2000. “I’m watching it on TV. I’m watching people play my role on TV. There’s a guy with bullhorn from Scott’s campaign, signs outside recount center. Even the verbiage of Scott, calling Nelson a sore loser, is the same.”
For Blakeman, it’s a sign that Florida didn’t fix the lax election policies exposed by the Brooks Brothers riot.
“They certainly didn’t learn a lesson from it, if we are experiencing the same thing 18 years later,” he said. “The system is still broken.”
But Geller draws a different conclusion.
“The pessimist in me says that maybe those lessons were learned too well by the wrong people for the wrong reasons,” he said. "It worked then, and they are thinking it might work well again.”
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