Few politicians in the world are more famous than Sarasota’s Congresswoman Katherine Harris, who’s running for re-election this November to the U.S. House of Representatives as a first-time incumbent. Harris, by virtue of her role in deciding the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, holds a unique -and controversial-place in history. But political analysts generally agree that in heavily Republican Sarasota, especially in this hyper-polarized political season-whether or not George Bush wins re-election, and despite a number of Democratic challengers-she will probably retain her seat.
Chief among the challengers has been Jan Schneider, a longtime Washington, D.C., lawyer who, as a political unknown, ran against Harris in 1998, and surprised many when she managed to take 45 percent of the vote to Harris’ 55 percent. With more experience-and money-Schneider is running again, and many consider her the likely Democratic nominee. But late in the game, Harris faces a new challenge, and from an unlikely opponent. Political newcomer Christine Jennings, recently retired as founding president and CEO of Sarasota Bank, raised establishment eyebrows in mid-March when she announced plans to challenge Harris for her seat in the 13th Congressional District-as a Democrat.
By all accounts, Jennings, 58, is the archetypal banker: highly organized, precise and persuasive in speech, conservative in dress, impeccable in manner. In her St. John suits, her smooth blonde pageboy in perfect order, she gives the impression of moving with great deliberation through the worlds of banking and community service.
In the past, Jennings says, colleagues and clients have told her they’d vote for her if she ever ran for office. "But after the announcement in the newspaper, I got a lot of teasing," she says with a laugh. "They said, ‘Chris, when I told you that, I just assumed you were a Republican.’ "
USF political science professor Susan McManus singles out Jennings as one of the most interesting candidates in Florida this season for another reason: When the bank she founded was sold to Colonial BancGroup last October, Jennings became a multimillionaire.
McManus, a political analyst for WFLA News Channel 8 who writes a regular blog for its Web site, tbo.com, wrote in her April 19 posting that "Rich men with no political experience suddenly throwing their hats into the political ring and running for top level posts is old news. But wealthy women doing the same? It’s a rarity and it’s happening in Florida in 2004." McManus went on to call Jennings "the intriguing new face, untarnished, but also untested."
Can anybody beat Katherine Harris?
"If you look at it objectively, the odds of beating an incumbent in a district with such a strong Republican advantage are very low," says Dr. Keith Fitzgerald, associate professor of political science at New College of Florida and a recently appointed member of the Sarasota County Democratic Executive Committee. "Nationally, incumbents have been winning for the past 20 years at a rate of 92 to 97 percent. And in most of the cases where those incumbents lost, there has been such major redistricting that it was not the same district they originally won in, or there has been a scandal."
Fitzgerald says gerrymandering-the intentional redrawing of districts by those in office to strengthen their party’s election clout-is one reason why incumbents win at such an extremely high rate. "That certainly applies to the 13th Congressional District," he says. "When the African-Americans in Palmetto and Bradenton were pulled out of this district in 2002 and put into Jim Davis’ 11th Congressional District in St. Petersburg, 20,000 to 30,000 [presumably Democratic] votes were taken out."
Another factor favoring incumbents is their casework and service to their constituents. "A large part of a congressman’s duties is serving as an intermediary between you and the federal government," Fitzgerald says. "With an incumbent, even if you don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for them, you recognize they have the advantage of getting things done for you."
And it’s generally agreed that Harris has been getting things done for her district, bringing a new national cemetery for veterans to the region and working to bring home the Hope VI grant for low-income housing for the city of Sarasota. And she’s been working carefully. "Sarasota County is not full of evangelical Republicans. They’re old-fashioned Republicans," Fitzgerald says. "All of Harris’ high-profile activities have emphasized that brand. She has taken great pains to take the edge off so she doesn’t look like a Tom DeLay clone."
Then there’s the "sophomore surge." Statistically, an incumbent running for first-time re-election gains an average seven percent increase in votes over the first time he or she ran. Harris didn’t run away with her first race in 2002. "Katherine had high negatives; there are many good Republicans who just don’t like her," says Fitzgerald. "She actually did more poorly in Sarasota County than in the rest of the district [winning by just under 10,000 votes]. Where you’d think her strength was strongest, it was actually weakest." (The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, citing Harris’ "polarizing presence," endorsed Democratic opponent Schneider in 2002.) "But now that she’s running as an incumbent, people may say, ‘Well, she worked on the Hope VI grant,’ ‘Well, my cousin had that problem with his visa.’ It’s all about influence and impact.
"You add that all up-the sophomore advantage, the highly Republican district, her name recognition, she’s done a lot of things right. I think Katherine’s really hard to beat. But for Christine, that makes the story more interesting-why would an establishment person take this risk?"
Chris Jennings grew up in New Boston, Ohio, a tiny Appalachian town on the Ohio River with a population of just over 2,000 people, about a hundred miles east of Cincinnati. New Boston was a steel mill town; and her father worked for the only major company, the Detroit Steel Corporation. Active in the local steelworkers union, he became a shop steward. "It took my father eight years to gain seniority in the steel mill, and so the first few years of my life we pretty much existed on gravy, bread and potatoes," she remembers.
The importance of managing money was a lesson learned at an early age. "My parents could take a dime and turn it into a dollar," Jennings remembers. "We owned the house we lived in. Every week they sat at the kitchen table and did a budget, and in that budget was a line item for my grandmother. They gave her money every week because she gave her money away to the church." When Detroit Steel went out of business 30 years ago, Jennings says, it devastated New Boston economically. "I learned a good business lesson from it: Diversify."
Jennings was the oldest of four daughters; her youngest sister was born when she was 24. In 1963, the week after she graduated from high school at the age of 18, she took a job as a teller at American Savings & Loan in nearby Portsmouth. "I still remember, I drew $86 net every two weeks," she says. "I paid room and board the first month I started working. I took over the mortgage payment of our house, $45 a month, and paid the woman who drove me to work a dollar a day."
Old family photos paint a portrait of a close, politically active family: their white-clapboard house, its picket fence lost behind a forest of "vote for so-and-so" signs; Christine’s sister, Cherie, proudly holding up an autographed picture of Jimmy Carter; her mom in a comical red, white and blue costume, a "We’re with Duke ’88" poster on the wall behind her. In the mid-1980s, her mother successfully ran for a seat on the New Boston city council.
"I grew up in a very strong Democratic family," says Jennings. "The lessons I learned from my parents were basically about how to treat people. They taught us that we do have a responsibility to take care of those who are less fortunate. If she thought you were not kind to someone, whew, she lost it."
The political bug has been passed on to the family’s third generation; Jennings’ nephew, Jay Delaney, 25, quit his job last spring at the Dayton Chamber of Commerce in order to move to Sarasota, live with his aunt and manage her Congressional campaign.
Three years ago, Jennings told SARASOTA Magazine that she started Sarasota Bank because there was no other way to advance to the job for which she knew she was qualified: president. "Looking back, it was a miracle," she said. "I put together a board of 10 men and one other woman, and most of the men I did not know. I asked them to put up, on average, $100,000, and make a commitment to help start the bank."
Eddie Levi was one of those board members. The retired Portsmouth, Ohio, furniture store owner, who’d served on the board of Bank One in Ohio, got a call in 1990 from Jennings about a possible role at a bank she was forming.
"I had just retired; I was very skeptical, I didn’t want to get involved. But I agreed to meet with her," remembers Levi. "Because a woman will evaluate a woman differently than a man, I took my wife. We walked out of the meeting and I said, ‘She’s sharp.’ My wife said, ‘She’s very sharp.’"
Levi says it was Jennings’ communication and organization skills and her ability to make hard decisions that convinced him to join the board of the fledgling bank. "She faced any situation and tackled it, even if it meant admitting she made a mistake," says Levi. "One day, just 60 days after the bank opened, she called me and said, ‘I’ve made a mistake. My executive vice president is not going to make it.’" The same thing happened shortly after with another key employee, Levi says. "She wasn’t afraid to replace these people when we were in our infant stage and we were losing money." He adds, "She could be stern but she always backed it by figures, and her employees were tremendously loyal to her."
Levi says he was "very surprised" when Jennings confided her political plans to him, but he agreed to serve on her campaign committee. "I think she has what it takes to stay in this fight; the backbone and the thick skin. I think she would make a very fine congresswoman because of her honesty and the responsibility she’s had in a man’s world.
"You know, she doesn’t have a college degree. I knew her uncles back in Ohio. It was strictly very blue collar; her family lived a block from the mill. It’s remarkable where she’s taken herself."
The 13th Congressional District, which encompasses all of Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties and a tiny sliver of northwest Charlotte County, is a largely Republican district with a population of about 650,000. A self-described moderate Democratic, Jennings says the needs of its residents are obvious: accessible health care, an affordable prescription drug program, stronger funding for education, reducing the federal budget deficit.
And while she firmly maintains the race is about issues, not personalities, she says the district’s constituents "need a representative who is interested in doing that job for them on a long-term basis, not thinking about the next move. In order to take care of the people in the 13th District you have to stay in as a representative, earn the respect and trust, so you can deliver back home for the needs of the people. I think many people feel that Katherine is always looking at the next job."
But why now? Why not wait until Harris runs for Senate in a few years, as she’s already said she will do? Jennings says it has less to do with Katherine Harris than it does with her disappointments with the Bush administration. "The last three years it has been extremely difficult to watch what’s going on," she says. "Many, many people have shared the concern with me that the direction this country is going in is not a good one and may continue to get worse. We need someone who has not been part of the current situation-[not] someone who was Secretary of State and who was also raising money at the very same time for Bush."
Jennings believes Harris’ greatest political weakness is her close tie to the Bush administration. In this particularly polarizing campaign season, she is encouraged by the red, white and blue Beat Bush buttons being worn almost defiantly this spring on lapels all over Sarasota.
The strong showing fellow Democrat Jan Schneider made against Harris in Harris’ first run for Congress in 2002 also encourages Jennings. Along with Schneider, Jennings faces Palmetto attorney C.J. Czaia and Manatee Community College computer science teacher Floyd Jay Winters in the Aug. 31 Democratic primary.
It’s "too hard to say" how Jennings’ late entry will affect the race, says Sarasota County Democratic Executive Committee chairman Harold Miller. "She’s going to be a very good candidate, a very competitive candidate," he says. "But I don’t know who she takes it away from."
And New College of Florida’s Keith Fitzgerald cautions, "Christine does have challengers with strengths. It’s not going to be a shoo-in. Jan Schneider now has name recognition and is considered sort of a hero [for being the first to take on Harris in 2002]; C.J. Czaia is a personable guy and well liked in Manatee County." Winters, like Jennings another political novice, is widely considered to be bright and amiable.
But some political observers were surprised that Winters’ very first contest is for Congress instead of local office. They question why some of Schneider’s key supporters in her 2002 race have jumped ship to work for Jennings. And they predict that Czaia’s political fortunes will fade-fairly or not-when voters are reminded of his link to accused child killer Joseph P. Smith. Czaia was Smith’s attorney in 1998 when Smith was acquitted of kidnapping a woman in Manatee County.
Plus, Jennings declared her candidacy on March 17, several months later than her Democratic challengers. That means her most important race has been to raise money to buy enough advertising to overcome her late entry. She estimates she’ll need $500,000 for the primary and another $500,000 for the general election. Her first-quarter filing on March 31 shows she raised $93,375 in those first two weeks, including $50,000 she personally loaned the campaign. That’s a fast start, considering that Schneider announced her candidacy in November 2003 and has raised $86,868 with a personal loan of $32,500 to the campaign; Czaia has raised $70,352 since he declared his candidacy in November, including a $44,440 loan; and Winters has raised $60,564 since declaring his candidacy in February 2003, including a $50,000 loan from himself. Of course, these amounts are all dwarfed by the $1.26 million-plus raised by incumbent Harris.
"Jennings needs to raise sufficient money," says Fitzgerald. "Enough to be seen as a credible candidate, and enough in reserves so that when the negative ads begin in the closing days-and they will-she can fight back."
Schneider became upset when asked how Jennings’ candidacy has affected the race, at first refusing to comment. Later that day, she and two of her campaign staff came to the magazine’s office, bearing muffins and an apology. "We came within five percent of winning last time as a total unknown," she says. "I have trust in the voters of this district, and we’re way ahead this time." The first to admit that she doesn’t fit the usual political mold, Schneider says she knows her voice-often weak and quavery-"will always be an issue," and that her campaign team gets frustrated by her resistance to self-promotion-"I don’t want anything that uses the word I," she says. "But I’m really smart and I know how to manipulate Washington." And that, she says, more than a charismatic personality, will count with the voters in this district, whom she characterizes as unusually well-informed and deeply interested in issues.
That statement, of course, is one that every candidate endorses. For example, Jessica Furst, communications director for the Harris campaign, says, "Regardless of whom Katherine should face in the general election, this race will focus on the important issues she has fought for on behalf of the citizens of this District. These issues, rather than politics or personalities, will shape this important election."
Maybe, but analysts say other factors will also count, from name recognition to electability. On her April 19 blog, McManus seemed to imply that the well-connected Jennings had an advantage in the latter area. "The dilemma facing many Democrats in the District 13 primary," she wrote, "is whether to vote on the basis of loyalty (Scheider) or on electability (Jennings)." If Democratic voters believe that enough Republicans might jump ship to support Jennings over Harris, they may forsake Schneider for Jennings in the primary.
One prominent Republican who’s made that switch is former Sarasota mayor Mollie Cardamone, who announced at a University Club reception in April that she had changed party affiliation in order to work for Jennings. "She really kept her politics close to the vest, didn’t she?" says Cardamone.
A Sarasota city commissioner from 1993 until her retirement in 2001, Cardamone praises Jennings’ leadership as past president of the Downtown Association and chairman of the Ringling Museum board during "its troublesome years," in 1999 and 2000. (Jennings was appointed to the Ringling board in 1995 and still serves as a trustee.) "She did a masterful job in Tallahassee of keeping our museum open and live," Cardamone says. "She has proven what a worthy citizen she is."
Jennings is banking that such service to the Ringling, Community AIDS Network, Sarasota Film Festival and Sarasota Ballet, and her track record as founding president and CEO of Sarasota Bank, will win votes and attract donations. The Sarasota Bank sale made a lot of money for a lot of investors-some $3.3 million for her alone-when it was turned over in October to Alabama-based Colonial BancGroup. For every $10 worth of stock originally issued, investors made $62.11. (Colonial Bank originally announced Jennings would be staying on to manage the transition, but although she signed a two-year contract, she says she subsequently resigned on Jan. 12 because staying onboard "was much, much harder than I thought it would be. It was like giving your child away for adoption.")
Jennings says many establishment Republicans who, like Cardamone, are moderate at heart, have encouraged her to run. "In a lot of cases, the Republican Party does not have a lot to offer me right now," says Cardamone, and she says she is not alone. "Sarasota may show on the charts as a haven of Republicanism, but in actuality there are many Republicans like myself with Democratic roots. It’s been proven by our votes for Lawton Chiles and for Bob Graham. A lot of us in the 1970s switched parties because the Democrats weren’t fielding candidates for school board and other offices, and we wanted to vote in the primaries."
In this heavily Republican district, "it all boils down into how well Jennings can peel off Republican voters," political analyst McManus says. "Crossover voters are critical to this race."
New College of Florida’s Fitzgerald offers another caution: As a newcomer, Jennings is unknown to the vast majority of voters. "The Democratic primary is not won in the business elites of Sarasota," he says. "It’s a really shocking thing congressional candidates always face, that 80 to 90 percent of the people don’t have a clue as to who they are. Christine, like Katherine Harris, is recognized by many people when she walks into a room. But the kinds of people who recognize her aren’t necessarily the ones she needs.
"Don’t assume your good reputation or good recognition will carry you," he advises. "You get out into a shopping mall and they say ‘Who?’"
Can an unknown newcomer, even with impressive connections and fund-raising skill, ever hope to beat an opponent so universally known as Katherine Harris? "That remains to be seen," Cardamone says. "I happen to like Katherine. But it’s not about Katherine. It’s about the economy, the religious right, the abortion issue, the direction the Republican Party is going. I know Katherine won’t like it, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do."
Although Jennings may be new to Sarasota politics, she insists she’s anything but untested. "Anyone knows if you can survive in the corporate world for 40 years, you are pretty tough and you learn a lot of lessons. There’s an inner strength that comes from the way I was brought up. My father was like that. I would prefer never to have a disagreement. But if I do, I am prepared for it.
"I know everyone thinks all bankers are so dry, and we never laugh and we have no sense of humor; we just sit and count money. I love to laugh and I have a good time. But I’ve also got to tell you, being in banking was not hard for me. It fit me very well. There’s nothing I really had to change to be a personal banker."
Outside of a few close friends, Jennings has long kept her Democratic Party affiliation to herself. That’s because, in 40 years of banking (20 of those years in heavily Republican Manatee and Sarasota counties), "I had to be careful with every word." She says it is liberating-and a little daunting-to change. "It’s still very new to have the freedom to speak out," she says. "But when I retired, I decided this is the time now that I can speak out and hopefully make a difference. If I’ve learned any lesson, and we all in Florida have learned this lesson together, it is the power of one voice, one vote."