Life of the Party

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An incorrect version of this article rather than the final edited version was published last week on this Web site. It contained incorrect information about Dan Berger, an advisor to Katherine Harris. We apologize for our error and have replaced the incorrect version with the story below, which is the article that appeared in the […]


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An incorrect version of this article rather than the final edited version was published last week on this Web site. It contained incorrect information about Dan Berger, an advisor to Katherine Harris. We apologize for our error and have replaced the incorrect version with the story below, which is the article that appeared in the printed magazine.

On a balmy evening this spring, John Ringling’s Cà d’Zan was overflowing with just the type of guests the flamboyant circus king relished entertaining. Celebrating the grand reopening of the bayfront mansion, which is part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum complex, were many of Sarasota’s most prominent residents. Like Ringling himself, many enjoyed luxurious lifestyles and were making a name for themselves by donating to the arts-that time-honored path to Sarasota social success.

Florida Secretary of State and United States Congressional candidate Katherine Harris was among the crowd. A former trustee of the museum (she’d first developed her taste for politics and public recognition when she lobbied for the museum in Tallahassee), the 45-year-old Harris knew just about everybody there.

After dinner, her friend Roy Palmer grabbed the microphone from Bob Roskamp, one of Sarasota’s wealthiest businessmen and philanthropists. Palmer is an attorney who made his fortune in Indian casinos and who, just like Ringling, commissioned artists to paint the ceiling of his bayfront mansion with pictures of him and his wife. He stepped up on a chair, and, swaying a little as he spoke, gestured towards Harris, who at that moment was sitting demurely at a corner table instead of doing her usual effervescent mingling. Katherine Harris, he proclaimed, would be our next member of Congress, then our next U.S. Senator, and finally President of the United States. The room exploded in applause.

Afterwards, Harris confessed she was a bit embarrassed by Palmer’s proclamation-"he shouldn’t wish such a thing on a friend," she said-and denied that she has her eye on anything other than serving as the 13th Congressional District’s next U.S. Representative. But that moment crystallizes what Harris, who in eight years has risen from being a one-term Florida senator to Florida’s Secretary of State, means to many of Sarasota’s Republicans. The darling of the Republican Party nationwide for declaring President George W. Bush the winner in the 2000 election, Harris is, as The Washington Times recently described her, "a woman who lines up closely behind" the President’s vision. She also shares many aspects of his background. Both were born into wealthy, well-connected political families and are known for gregarious, likable personalities rather than brilliant academic or business credentials.

Harris, whose personal fortune was estimated as $6.6 million in a 1998 financial disclosure report (she will soon inherit many more millions from her grandfather’s estate), prefers to downplay her wealth. But Sarasotans are accustomed to seeing images of her in stunning, often low-cut gowns at the many black-tie events she attends. (Longboat Key residents also read several years ago in the Longboat Observer that a burglar broke into her home on the island and stole $60,000 worth of her jewelry.) And her husband, Swedish-born businessman Sven Anders Axel Ebbeson (who is now an American citizen) has a fortune that is said to match if not exceed her own.

Harris met Ebbeson, who loves to play golf and race cars and has a number of business holdings, including in the marine manufacturing business, on a blind date at the Sarasota Opera in 1996. The two were married on New Year’s Eve later that year in Paris and held another ceremony in the courtyard of the Ringling Museum, where tulle decorated the columns, flowers were flown in from Europe and guests came from around the world.

Harris spends about three to four days a week in Tallassee, where she has a house, and flies home every weekend to Sarasota, where Ebbeson has a home valued at $1.4 million on a canal on Longboat Key. They also have a home in Halmstad, Sweden, and travel extensively. (The daughter many Harris biographies mention is Ebbeson’s teen-age daughter from his previous marriage and does not live with them full-time.)

But if Harris’ wealth and glamour make her at home with her high-powered supporters, those qualities have also made it easy for detractors to dismiss her. Even before she set the deadline that gave President Bush a 537-vote victory, she’s been a lightning rod for critics who say she’s a political dilletante. (Harris says she’s received some of the harshest criticism from the local media, which is why, on the advice of her friend, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, she now never reads the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.) And the flap that developed when Tiger Bay Club president Marj Baldwin recently barred Harris from a dinner meeting, claiming that she tried to sneak in without making reservations, added more ammunition to those who charge that Harris is a princess accustomed to royal treatment.

Still, most analysts see Harris as a shoo-in to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dan Miller-R this fall. Her little-known opponents aren’t considered real threats. At press time, she had already amassed a record $1.7 million for the race. She also has what most politicians crave: instant recognition. Republicans around the country are deeply grateful to her; for a while, she was one of the hottest national speakers at Republican events. In addition, Harris is acknowledged even by her critics to be one of the hardest workers and most tireless campaigners in state government. (She says she once gave 21 speeches on a Saturday and 18 on Sunday, and she’s been known to respond to e-mail at 3 in the morning.) And, as her supporters point out, she’s chosen to devote herself to public life and undergo enormous scrutiny when she could have instead enjoyed a privileged existence of privacy and leisure.

A fourth-generation Floridian, Harris grew up in one of the state’s most prominent families. Her grandfather was Ben Hill Griffin Jr., citrus and cattle king of Florida for a good part of the 20th century and a former Democratic state senator, who now has the stadium named after him at the University of Florida. When he died in 1990, his personal wealth was estimated at $300 million. (Griffin’s four daughters and son have been squabbling over the estate and settled a lawsuit last March that will give the sisters and their children-of whom Harris is one-$250 million in assets, including a 62,000-acre ranch and controlling interest in the family business Alico.)

But Harris says her upbringing was down-to-earth. She spent lots of time on the ranch with her family-with whom she remains very close. "We had no idea we had money," Harris says. "We weren’t raised that way. My sister once told me, ‘The media paints us as blue bloods, but Katherine-we’re rednecks!’"

Harris was born in Key West and raised in the small Central Florida town of Bartow in a two-story home-roomy, but hardly a mansion-on a tree-lined street. She has a brother, Walt, now a restaurateur in Aspen, Colorado, and a younger sister, Fran, married to Christian singer/songwriter Wes King. Her father George W. Harris Jr. still runs Citrus and Chemical Bank, and everyone in town knows the family. Harris’ mother Harriett is a homemaker with considerable energy. Harriett ran a Girl Scout troop that was so popular it had a waiting list, taking the girls on rigorous canoeing and camping trips to just about every park in the state. Harris still loves the outdoors, say her friends.

After attending private elementary school, Harris went to public high school, where she was a star tennis player and prom queen. Then, following in her mother’s footsteps, she attended Agnes Scott College in Georgia, a liberal arts college popular with girls from well-to-do Southern families, where she graduated with a B.A. in history and a concentration in art.

During college she interned for former Florida Democratic Congressman Andy Ireland, who had been a friend of the family for years and the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. Ireland remembers Harris as unusually motivated even in her early 20s. He once had a lunch date with the ambassador from Venezuela. "Katherine asked me, ‘Can I go?’" Ireland recounts. "It kind of startled me and then I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ She wasn’t being pushy, just plain interested." Harris, he reflects, could have been a "couch potato," an "’I’m Miss Princess and bring me the caviar’" kind of person. Instead, he says, she worked harder than anyone.

Harris tried various paths after college, attending a Christian mission in Switzerland and studying Spanish and art in Madrid, than working for IBM and moving into commercial real estate. (She worked for Michael Saunders & Company in Tampa for a short period.) According to the financial report she had to file when she ran for state senator in 1994, she made no income as a realtor. When she married the first time, to a local attorney named Tom Arnold, she moved to Sarasota. The marriage soon ended, but Harris liked Sarasota and decided to stay. She continued in real estate but channeled much of her energy into volunteer work for groups such as the Junior League, Historic Spanish Point, the Newtown Library, New College and the John and Mable Ringling Museum.

Governor Chiles appointed her to the board of the museum in 1991, and it was then that she began to make her mark. She took over the museum’s UnGala Gala, a fundraiser that Harris says had been losing $15,000 every year, and turned it into a splashy party that attracted a new and younger crowd. By her second year, the UnGala was making $100,000, she says. Her friend and Congressional campaign finance chair Margaret Wise remembers Harris promoting the museum and the gala at every opportunity. "She’d work on a real estate deal in Key West and come back with auction items like nights in hotels and dinner in restaurants," Wise says.

She also went to Tallahassee to lobby for the museum. At that time, Sarasota’s state senator was the late Jim Boczar, a gruff Democratic attorney with a knack for alienating people. The Ringling Museum is known for its Baroque collection of paintings, including several works by Peter Paul Rubens, and Boczar infuriated Harris by announcing that as far as he was concerned, a Rubens was a sandwich, so the lobbyists need not stop by his door. Harris, who likes telling this story, says she was so angry she decided to run against him in 1994.

Something else surfaced in Tallahassee. Patricia Caswell, the head of the Sarasota Arts Council, says Harris proved to be a real political presence. She "lit up" the state Capitol, Caswell remembers. "She was dressed in a plaid suit, very Talbot-like, with black gloves. She didn’t look like the typical lobbyist. I remember she gave a tiny finger wave to the Senate president. No one could get in to talk to legislators. She could get right in. She would walk up and down the halls writing notes-she writes in calligraphy-reminding them about a turkey shoot. She promised if they would pass this [an arts bill], she would hold a turkey shoot for them on her grandfather’s farm."

Harris has continued to develop into a formidable campaigner. A Sarasota newspaper photographer who covered her Senate race says she was tireless, stopping at the little trailer parks most candidates ignore and talking to any resident who wanted to chat. "It was remarkable how people responded to her," he says.

Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for the New Yorker who wrote a book about the Bush-Gore election, says "even by politicians’ standards, she’s strikingly energetic." And Harris brings more than energy to the campaign trail. She can be bubbly and charming and even self-effacing, with an ability to remember names and make people feel important. She insists on voters calling her "Katherine." She often eschews the formal speeches at women’s clubs and other organizations and walks around the tables, greeting and talking to every person she can.

In the 1994 election, Harris raised more than half a million dollars, more than any other candidate had ever raised in a state senate campaign, and she upset Dr. Robert Windom in the primary and then went on to easily unseat Boczar.

Harris says she passed 100 bills in four years-"when it’s your first four years, that’s significant"- although some counter that there wasn’t much point to all that activity. Some of her more notable actions were sponsoring legislation to raise requirements for high school graduation and a bill (which was vetoed) that would prohibit a minor from having abortions without 48-hour notice to a parent. Harris says she consciously avoided the limelight. "When the cameras came in I always went out the back door," she says. When she did speak, said one reporter at the capital bureau, she often sounded halting and unsure of herself. She often seemed hidden behind her laptop on the Senate floor, constantly typing away, at what, members of the press corps couldn’t tell.

"She wasn’t a real standout," says Alan Judd, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s former Tallahassee reporter, who now works at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "But she was only there for four years. I considered her a lightweight legislatively. She didn’t get involved in the big issues."

She did, however, develop a reputation for being a strong supporter for the arts, following in the tradition of such predecessors as Sarasota Sen. Bob Johnson, who was also known for bringing arts dollars home. During her years as a state senator, Harris also commuted to Boston, earning a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a mid-career master’s program. She specialized in international trade.

While in the Senate, Harris received attention for her involvement in the Riscorp scandal. Riscorp was the Sarasota insurance company whose principals were indicted and convicted for election fraud for illegally donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates. Riscorp asked its employees to make donations, and then reimbursed them. Harris accepted a little more than $20,000 in such donations. She denied knowledge of the scheme even though her office asked for separate addresses for each check and was not charged with violating any laws.

Toobin writes in his "Too Close To Call" that Harris’ "one-term legislative career was marked principally by her effort to find higher office to seek in 1998." She found it, he claims, when Jeb Bush chose Secretary of State Sandra Mortham for his running mate. At that time, the Secretary of State was a voting member of the Florida governor’s cabinet and oversaw a hodgepodge of functions, including licensing, arts, historic preservation, libraries, corporations, international trade and, of course, elections. Harris says that far from being a random choice, the office was tailor-made for her, with its focus on history, the arts, international trade, and even issuing licenses for controlled firearms. (Harris has qualified as an "expert" in marksmanship.) "It was like I had designed the office with all my favorite things," she says.

Mortham dropped out of the lieutenant governor’s race when media reports surfaced that she had used her office for political gain. She decided to try to hold onto her office as Secretary of State, and a fierce battle developed between Harris and Mortham. If some doubted that Harris had what it took to succeed in the cutthroat arena of politics, the Mortham fight proved them wrong. According to many media analysts, Harris took the lead, when she accused Mortham of accepting $5,000 in illegal funds from Riscorp. Harris won the primary against Mortham and easily won the general election.

The day she took office, however, a new constitutional amendment took effect, making the Secretary of State’s cabinet seat an appointed position and dividing up its duties and merging them with other cabinet offices. While many figured Harris would be a lame duck, she soon showed the energy and tenacity for which she is famous. The office had just assumed enhanced responsibilities for international trade, and Harris, with her new master’s degree under her belt, made that her cause.

Harris loves talking about Florida’s economic role in the Western Hemisphere, and as she reels off facts, figures and names ("Katherine, stop!" her friends have been known to implore), she sounds like the passionate policy wonk she says she really is. She says she took Gov. Chiles’ 1995 Gulf of Mexico States Accord-an attempt to enhance Florida’s trading opportunities with Mexico that was collecting dust on a shelf-and "turned it into an exciting initiative."

Florida’s international trade, she asserts, has increased from $32 billion to $74 billion in a decade (although it’s not clear what portion of that amount can be contributed to her efforts). She also says she was instrumental in getting Congress to pass a resolution to make Florida the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Congressional resolutions in and of themselves don’t always mean much-they can, for example, designate a state flower or National Bird Watching Week.

But Harris has received recognition for her achievements in international trade. Florida’s State Chamber of Commerce recently honored Harris with its "Champion of Free Trade" award for her attention to expanding international trade. David Batts, a consultant for the chamber and former CEO of the phosphate industry’s trade group, says Harris has made a huge difference and placed much greater priority on this area than the governor.

Harris’ focus on trade also caused some controversy. Just before the 2000 elections, newspapers reported that Harris had traveled to the Caribbean, the Sydney Olympics and Latin America in her international role, racking up more than $100,000 in travel expenses, more than any other public official in Florida. (Harris defends her traveling expenses, saying that not only were the trips well worth the cost but that she often roomed with an aide to cut down on expenses.)

But despite those newspaper stories, most Floridians outside of Sarasota probably wouldn’t have been able to name Harris as their Secretary of State or describe her duties.

The election changed all that. Harris was propelled onto the national scene at one of the most critical moments in American history. The entire election hung on the Florida vote, which was too close to call. As Florida’s Secretary of State, she set the deadline for when the last vote could be officially counted and certified the ballots, giving Bush his victory. Republicans rejoiced, but Democrats around the country denounced her, especially after they learned she was co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign. As the cameras zoomed in, Harris looked tense and overly made up (she says she applied her make-up in the car on the way to one press conference), and she was soon reviled and mocked in everything from political cartoons to late-night TV.

Clearly, Harris was unprepared for the assault. She says she was surprised that some of the cruelest comments came from women reporters and that some of the photographs were altered-for example, in one, they "added blue eye shadow and I don’t even own blue eye shadow."

Harris says her husband and her faith in God helped her get through this period. "I think the best advice was within the first 48 hours by my husband. I asked him, it was a rhetorical question, ‘What am I going to do?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s simple. You just have to exercise extraordinary integrity because you have to live with yourself.’"

To Republicans, she emerged as a national heroine, and she received 750,000 e-mails, many of them from supporters, and many bouquets of flowers. Locally, her supporters, including a number of those who applauded her recently at Cà d’Zan, ran a full-page ad in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Valentine’s Day 2001. Harris’ face took up three-quarters of the page, and below was a list of more than 300 names, a who’s who of the wealthy and influential in Sarasota.

Today, the once obscure Florida official is known around the world. Candice Brown McElyea, one of those running against her for Congress, notes that such widespread recognition can be a mixed blessing. "She’s got a lot of name recognition, but it’s negative recognition," argues McElyea, a former SNN reporter. But even if that’s true for many, Harris is firmly ensconced as a Republican icon, not only in Sarasota but far beyond. Money and support are flowing into her campaign-at press time, the list of contributors was 230 pages long and included names from 42 states. Her victory seems so certain that lobbyists are already starting to contact her staff. With her usual overdrive, Harris says she’s taking nothing for granted and has thrown herself into the endless rounds of giving speeches and attending every conceivable event. With the primary five months away, she had already spent more than $800,000.

Even some local Republicans are taken aback at how much Harris has raised. Former Republican Sarasota County Commissioner Jeanne McElmurray calls Harris’ campaign war chest and $500 and $1,000-plate fund-raisers "sickening." "She doesn’t need to raise this kind of money," insists McElmurray. "It means you’re buying your race."

Some prominent Florida Republicans also are staying off the Harris bandwagon. Florida Senate President John McKay (who, according to a Miami Herald report, resents Harris’ "showboat mentality") urged Congressman Dan Miller to reconsider his retirement when Harris announced her candidacy for his post. "There are probably people who could better represent the area," he told the Miami Herald. "I think Dan is interested in public service because of the good one can do as opposed to the accolades it might engender." Gov. Jeb Bush, who publicly says he’ll support Harris, is said to be distancing himself from her and her role in electing his brother as he heads into his own reelection campaign and faces angry Democrats and African-Americans.

But most Republicans are delighted to support her, especially those who predict that Harris will use some of her campaign funds to help the Republican National Party and other candidates. "Money is the mother’s milk of politics," says Sarasota Republican chairman Tramm Hudson-whose own long-planned run for Congress was derailed by Harris’ decision to enter the race-and it’s nurtured many a political phenomenon. Parties love candidates who bring in money, and even if they’re newcomers to Congress, such politicians tend to get the high-profile, choice committee assignments-a perfect perch for those who may have their sights set on the more powerful U.S. Senate or even higher office.

Harris steadily denies she has any aspirations beyond Congress. In fact, she insists that she is not even a politician by nature and that those who see her as ambitious "would be people who have no idea who I am."

For now, it doesn’t seem to make much difference what those people think. If she’s not ambitious, she should be, since she has what it seems to take to win in American politics today-money, celebrity and charisma. Her stands on issues seem almost superfluous. A conservative Republican, she will, Hudson predicts, "vote the party line."

That’s worked for many winning politicians in America today; and Harris, in addition to her energy and work ethic, has withstood the ultimate political trial by fire, making a tough decision while the whole world watched and then sticking by her guns. And, some would add, she has one more little victory under her belt-what Toobin calls her "biggest accomplishment": getting George Bush elected President of the United States.

Considering all that, even cold-sober political analysts who never heard of Sarasota or John Ringling might agree with the partiers who applauded her that night at Cà d’Zan. Anything can happen, of course, especially in politics, but right now, the House of Representatives hardly looks like the last stop for Katherine Harris.