Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

In Defense of Katherine Harris (Somewhat)

by Randolph T. Holhut

She has become the human face of a tainted election
(AR) -- I'm still bemused by the thought of it: the next president of the United States will be determined by Katherine Harris, someone I went to school with.

It took me a few days to realize it. But when I saw her face on the TV and her name in the newspapers by the end of that first week of election disaster in Florida, I remembered. And sure enough, the Katherine Harris that's ultimately making the call that will give George W. Bush the presidency was in my class at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

It might upset her Republican supporters to know this, but she spent a year at what George W's father called "a liberal boutique" and what other Republicans call the "Kremlin on the Charles."

We were together in the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program's Class of 1997 at the Kennedy School. The MC-MPA program was filled with people like Harris -- accomplished professionals looking to move up. That they let a small-time journalist from Vermont into a class that included military officers, investment bankers, lawyers, cops, psychologists, political operatives and government ministers from all over the world still amazes me.

Katherine was serving in the Florida Senate while she was going to the Kennedy School. I saw the most of her during the first month orientation and acclamation phase of the program. She was the poster woman for Southern charm. She worked any room she was in and instantly won over anyone she met. By the end of the first week, every one of us had the little Florida orange stickers that she handed out by the roll.

Since she was concentrating on international trade and my work was in the area of press, politics and public policy, we saw little of each other after that first month. But she definitely left an impression with her energy, ambition and beauty. This was a woman who was going places.

I didn't know much about her beyond her Senate seat. It has only been in the last couple of weeks, with the intense media scrutiny that has been focused upon her, that I've seen what kind of person she really is.

Her expenses were nearly triple those of Governor Jeb Bush
Harris is a fourth-generation Floridian. Her grandfather is Ben Hill Griffin, a cattle and citrus tycoon who served in the Florida Legislature in the 1950s; University of Florida's football stadium is named after him (thanks to a $20 million donation). She attended Agnes Scott College, an exclusive all-girls school in Atlanta. She's married, lives in Sarasota and is worth about $6 million. She worked as a real estate broker and an account executive for IBM.

As a Republican state senator from 1994 to 1998, she garnered approval ratings of 100 percent from Florida Right to Life and 86 percent from the Christian Coalition. She also gained some unwanted notoriety in the 1996 legislative session when she became entangled in a scandal involving a Florida insurance company.

According to the New York Daily News, Riscorp gave Harris more than $25,000 in campaign contributions. Nearly $21,000 of that amount was deemed illegal. During the final moments of the 1996 session, she was presented with a handwritten amendment by a Riscorp lobbyist. She introduced the amendment, unaware that the Riscorp-sponsored legislation was designed to put one of its competitors out of business. Harris later allowed that she had introduced the amendment at the lobbyist's urging without understanding what it was about.

Harris eventually returned the money and never was prosecuted. Five people from Riscorp pleaded guilty to fraud charges and the head of the company spent five months in prison. Ironically, the Riscorp money Harris returned went to the Florida Election Commission Trust to fight voter fraud.

When the issue came up again during her 1998 campaign for secretary of state, Harris defended her actions on behalf of Riscorp as "good public policy" and attacked the incumbent, Sandra Mortham, for having used charitable contributions from a tobacco company to buy trinkets for her backers.

Harris would win that race in a landslide. To me, the news of that victory was simply an item that I glanced over in the alumni bulletin and paid little attention to. As it turned out, she had little interest in what is traditionally a secretary of state's duties -- handling election law, campaign finance, and corporate governance. Instead, she used the international trade knowledge and connections she picked up at the Kennedy School to become Florida's overseas ambassador for business.

According to The Washington Post, she spent more than $100,000 in 1999 on travel to places such as Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and Barbados. She stayed in $400-a-night hotels and used a state plane to commute between Sarasota and Tallahassee. Her expenses were nearly triple those of Governor Jeb Bush.

While frequently elected on party lines, secretaries of state as a rule are non-partisan in their duties. But Harris, the woman nominally in charge of enforcing Florida's election laws, saw no problem in serving as co-chairman of George W. Bush's Florida campaign and stumping in New Hampshire on Bush's behalf. Or in serving as a Bush delegate to the Republican National Convention. Or recruiting retired general (and Bush ally) Norman Schwarzkopf and using $30,000 of state money to do a get-out-the-vote commercial just before the November election.

No matter how the presidential election turns out, Harris will be out of a job in 2002 because of a change in the Florida Constitution that eliminates the secretary of state position. She considered running this year for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Connie Mack, but decided against it. She may try again to run for the U.S. Senate in 2002, although she'll probably end up getting a job in George W.'s administration when this is all done.

The abuse she's gotten in the media over her appearance has been a brutal example of the double standard women are held to in public life. When I saw her face for the first time in three years, I saw the face of someone who hasn't been sleeping much and is at the center of an electoral mess of epic proportions. I may be her 180-degree opposite politically, but I still wouldn't wish the treatment she's gotten on my worst enemy.

But the bouquets of flowers keep piling up outside Harris' office in the capital and her office has been flooded with messages of support from the conservative faithful. I won't be adding to the torrent. Much as I liked her as a fellow student, I am a little disappointed in her actions in this whole affair. To me, she has allowed her ambition to get in the way of doing what is right.

As secretary of state, she is supposed to enforce the election laws without fear or favor. You can't do that if you are on the campaign committee of one of the candidates involved in the dispute, or if you've personally campaigned for that candidate, or if you've hired lawyers in the dispute linked to the brother of the candidate (the law firm of Steel, Hector and Davis, which is serving as Harris' special counsel in this case has ties to Jeb Bush).

A smart politician avoids the appearance of impropriety whenever possible. Harris did not do this and is now tainted with the appearance of being in the tank for the Bush family. In a process that has been so bitter and so partisan, her actions are bound to hurt her reputation in the long run. She has become the human face of a tainted election.

I don't know what my other classmates in the MC-MPA Class of 1997 are thinking right now, but they are probably glad they are not Katherine Harris right now. Even if she does get the cushy job with the Bush Administration that she seems destined for, it will have come at a cost to her personal reputation. Politics is like that. Sometimes even if you win, you lose.

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years and edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 27, 2000 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.