Six years ago, Katherine Harris was an obscure Sarasota, Fla., socialite, a Harvard-educated heiress juggling a real estate job, arts charities and a short-lived nightclub gig doing the chicken dance and exhorting the audience to join in. She was also, say friends, bored silly.
How the world has changed.
Depending on who was speaking last week, Florida's secretary of state is either a hero or a villain of the Sunshine State's postelection madness--ready to bring an end to our long national nightmare or to abrogate the God-given rights of the American voter. Florida's senate minority leader, Buddy Dyer, a Democrat, says she "had an extraordinary chance to go down in history in a more honorable way and didn't take it." Not surprisingly, the other side disagrees. "She has had no choice but to follow the law," says former state Republican Party chairman Van Poole. "History will prove her a strong leader." Either way, Harris' career is a perfect illustration of the unruly politics of the state she has flamboyantly represented across the country and overseas for Governor Jeb Bush.
Harris not only inherited close to $7 million from her late grandfather, a citrus and cattle baron. She also received a legacy of fierce ambition. She unleashed it in 1994 by winning a state senate seat. Veteran pols like Poole, who helped her in that campaign, were dazzled by her "unbelievable drive." In the 1998 race that saw her elected to her current post, she engaged in some of the most steely-eyed mudslinging seen in the state in many years--and in the primaries the mud was flung against a G.O.P. friend and mentor. But that hard-won post proved too pedestrian for Harris. The job entails overseeing corporate filings, concealed-weapon permits and the state's election procedures. And so in her thousand-dollar power suits, Harris turned the office into a glamorous, globe-trotting Florida p.r. firm that lured business and ballet to the peninsula state.
What spurred Harris' political career has provided it with a dramatic, perhaps historic turning point--to either her benefit or her detriment. She bounded onto George W. Bush's campaign as his hard-charging Florida co-chair. Watchdog groups objected when she used the secretary of state's office--and taxpayer money--to produce get-out-the-vote TV ads starring Bush boosters like General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Thus last week, when Harris unloaded decision after decision that appeared to be in lockstep with Bush strategy, cries of partisanship sprang up immediately. Harris, 43, insisted that her rulings were "independent," but many Floridians say otherwise.