It was a tough summer for Congresswoman Katherine Harris. Immediately after she announced that she was challenging Florida Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat he’s held since 2000, it was widely reported that her own party leaders, Karl Rove and Elizabeth Dole among them, tried to dissuade her from running. Another spate of bad news followed: an embarrassing appearance on a Fox News Channel talk show in which she nervously squirmed and stumbled over her words; a flap after she accused the media of doctoring images of her to make her appear overly made-up; and poll numbers that showed her running as much as 20 percentage points behind Nelson. As the summer’s heat faded to fall, Harris sat down with Washington Times reporter Stephanie Mansfield to talk about the race of her political life.
U.S. Congresswoman Katherine Harris and I walk together through the underground tunnel on her way to a Homeland Security meeting in Washington’s Rayburn Building, her dove-gray stilettos going click-clack-click across the marble floor. She looks more like a well-heeled real estate agent than a lawmaker, in tailored gray silk and good jewelry, her auburn hair in a jaunty, soft flip and her make-up feminine and softer than it appeared in 2000 when she first burst onto the national scene.
At 48, Katherine Harris, the woman who launched a thousand blogs, the brunt of so many late-night jokes, wants to be taken seriously, especially after years of public service and her recent announcement she’s running for the Senate.
But many reporters who cover national politics say Harris is a dilettante, a woman of wealth and glamour who has managed to accomplish little during her two-year tenure as Congresswoman-but a politician so thoroughly insulated by big money and important friends and so determined to succeed that even her detractors tip their hat to one of the toughest cookies on Capitol Hill.
Not for her savvy, but for her spine.
Remember when that nut tried to run her over on a sidewalk in Sarasota last year? The very next day, she was back, waving to cars while supporters held up her placards in the blistering sun.
And she’s nice! Lots of people say so, and they often seem surprised by that, especially in Washington.
When White House senior policy advisor Karl Rove called her in for a little chat at the White House, presumably trying to talk her out of entering the Senate race because she didn’t have a chance, she bravely click-clacked out on those designer heels and stuck to her guns.
Sure it hurts, she tells me as we talk in her office on Capitol Hill, but that’s part of the game. "This is a blood sport," she says.
And who should know better than Katherine Harris?
Harris says she doesn’t know what her party pooh-bahs are afraid of. "I’m only eight points down," she claims. "That’s certainly not insurmountable."
If anything, the opposition to her candidacy has only made her more determined, she tells me. "Being [polarizing] is not a bad thing. It invigorates our base. But, no, I can’t say I was elated, but on the other hand it doesn’t stop me. This race is going to be decided at the ballot, not in a back room."
Harris talks in rapid Southern twang and at times seems to be fluttering an invisible Scarlett O’Hara fan. Unlike in Sarasota, where she regularly attends the poshest charity events, she says she purposefully hasn’t made much of a social splash in Washington, eschewing the endless rounds of parties and galas in favor of weekly commutes home to her husband, Swedish-born businessman Sven Anders Axel Ebbeson, and weeknights spent at her historic Capitol Hill townhouse, The Owl House, which Harris is renovating. ("I care about preservation," she says. "It’s one of my passions.")
A multimillionaire whose net worth has been estimated by Florida Trend to be between $10 million and $39 million, she recently raised eyebrows on the Hill by tooling around in a sleek, silver BMW 645ci convertible, base price $77,000. That’s chump change for the Senate candidate, who in August-nearly three months late-finally filed her 2004 financial disclosure, which according to The Hill newspaper, revealed that she owns a Sarasota rental property worth between $1 million and $5 million and has up to $5 million in a bank account. In February 2004, she sold stock in BHG Inc. for somewhere between $5 million and $25 million. (She’s also one of the heirs to the $300 million fortune of her grandfather, citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin, after which BHG-and the University of Florida football stadium-are named.)
As for her current job, she says it’s far different from the Florida Senate, the first office to which she was elected in 1994.
"I mean here, these are really life and death issues," she says. "These are issues worth losing sleep over. These are issues that you desperately hope beyond hope that all your information is accurate."
Homeland security is one of those issues: "When you start talking about people who care more about our death than their own life, appeasement doesn’t work. I’ve had time to learn that firsthand."
I ask her what the country is doing right, or wrong about homeland security. "There’s not one silver bullet," she says. "I think perhaps the expectation is if we only had perfect security at airports…it’s a series of layered defenses. If you really want to be safe and secure you pay for it in the context of a loss of freedom and the total invasiveness of Big Brother. And that’s not who we are."
With her prominent jaw and sometimes overwrought body language (she was roundly lampooned by Jon Stewart and other liberal media for her appearance last summer on Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes, where she threw back her shoulders and wiggled her upper body), Harris can appear to be more style than substance. In September, Associated Press political writer Brendan Farrington wrote, "If Katherine Harris has any hope of beating U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, she may need an extreme makeover. Many non-Republican voters see her as a flirty, vacant, beauty-queen wannabe who used her role in the 2000 presidential recount to get to Capitol Hill."
Which is why Republican bigwigs are nervous about her Senate run against moderate Democrat senator and former astronaut Bill Nelson, who has been serving for five years. The House is one thing, the Senate quite another, even though she is a formidable fund raiser and campaigner. Her recent poll numbers are weak, and she still carries a Louis Vuitton full of enmity over her role in the controversial 2000 Florida vote recount that resulted in President Bush’s win over Al Gore. Resentment against her could rise like the flood waters at Gulfport.
In early fall, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that if the election were held at that point, she would lose to Nelson by more than 20 percentage points.
But don’t count out her far-reaching constituency; Harris has never, not once, lost a race. And to many, she will always be a hero for her role in the 2000 presidential election. At the Christian Coalition of Florida annual dinner in September, former executive director Ralph Reed pledged the organization’s support of her campaign. "She is a champion for the families of America," he told the 900 attendees, minutes before Harris led them in the Pledge of Allegiance, according to a story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Last year, Harris was one of only three members of the Florida Congressional delegation to get a perfect score from the Christian Coalition for her voting record.
Back home, she’s won enthusiasm from constituents for her tenacity in bringing the next national V.A. cemetery to Sarasota County, for being front-and-center in the fight for affordable housing and for her support of families threatened by toxic waste in Tallevast.
Manatee County Republican Committee Chairman Mark Flanagan told Fox News Channel last July, "I frankly happen to be very disappointed to read articles in the media that seem to indicate that the establishment isn’t supporting her."
Flanagan believes that Harris has the support of every GOP county chair in the state. "Politics is local," Flanagan said, "and Republicans in Southwest Florida in particular are proud of Katherine Harris and are very thankful that she has been there for us as citizens and as Republicans."
And David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the nation’s largest grassroots conservative organization, told me, "I haven’t looked at the polls, but I think she does have a chance. She’s a great campaigner."
Advisors say Harris must begin to focus attention away from herself and the make-up jokes and on Bill Nelson’s record, but opponents say she seems unable to make that leap.
She recently spent media time complaining that her earlier photos were doctored to make her look like Disney villainess Cruella de Ville (news agencies vehemently denied the claim); and she said he criticism of her Hannity & Colmes performance-gleefully spoofed by liberal bloggers-was another example of "how women are demeaned by the media." (Her own spokesman explained her performance by saying, "She was just a little tired.")
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush encouraged Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, a moderate Republican from Panama City, to take on Nelson, calling Bense an "awesome candidate" and "well-qualified." Bush added:
"It’s important for our party to have a strong candidate for the United States Senate."
During the 2000 vote controversy, Harris became used to sharp elbows. Still, she looks genuinely hurt when the subject is broached and doesn’t try to hide that she was stung by her party’s lack of enthusiasm for her Senate candidacy. "They have never said anything negative to me," she says bravely.
She considered running for the Senate last year when Democrat Bob Graham retired but was discouraged by the White House. Mel
Martinez, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, won that race.
"It’s not about who deserves what," she says, deflecting the natural question about whether it is now, finally, her turn.
Perhaps the Republican Party, who basically assured her a victory in the 2002 House of Representatives race, is more than a little scared of Katherine Harris and her lofty ambitions. Indeed, her candidacy could embolden the Democratic Party, which could increase its coffers just on the strength of her name on the ballot. As for her tenure in Washington, few political pundits point to anything Harris has accomplished. Of course, the same could be said of most freshman members of the House. They’re not in positions of leadership but are mostly there to watch and learn, to pay their dues and wait in the wings.
Harris, a woman in a hurry, hasn’t racked up the kind of record to run on. She’s a staunch party stalwart who sits on the Financial Services Committee and committees for International Relations and Homeland Security. She is also, according to her bio, the Gulf of Mexico Caucus Chair and is on something called the Congressional Horse Caucus, as well as the Travel and Tourism Caucus and the Congressional Fitness Caucus.
"She serves as a role model for all the women who have been told they can’t do something," Tampa media consultant and Harris ally Adam Goodman recently told one Florida newspaper. "She believes there should be no glass ceiling."
I asked conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak about Harris’ Congressional record. "She’s behind [in the polls], and a lot of people have written her off, including some of the power brokers in the Republican Party," he told me. Nevertheless, he said, "I think she’s done fine. You know, people like the conventional wisdom that she ruined herself in the recount."
R. Emmett Tyrell, another syndicated columnist and editor of the conservative American Spectator magazine, was blunter. "Has she done anything in Washington?" I asked him. "Yes," he told me, with an edge of sarcasm. "She’s worn make-up. She had her hair done. And this is a very serious political issue with The New York Times and The Washington Post. I don’t know if she’s a serious contender for the Senate, but that ought not to be a serious news story. She’s a transmogrification of the liberals’ addled mind. She upsets liberals, and that makes her a huge issue."
Here in her office on the Hill, we sit in rich leather chairs, surrounded by antique furnishings and near a wooden plaque with a guiding principle carved on it: "Know What You Believe." She grabs a Diet Coke. She has a sculpture of a chad on her coffee table. "When people come in they’re like, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t talk about it,’" she says. "But it’s part of my history."
She wants to talk about a new bill for heightened security, using biometrics (fingerprint identification) and shared information with Mexico and Canada to secure the borders.
Does she feel she is making a difference?
"Of course I do. When the people are suffering so desperately and we can get them healthcare…." She speaks in rapid staccato, and it’s hard to follow her train of thought. She goes off in tangents.
"Do I feel like I’m making a difference? Yeah, I do. But I’m really not so political. I leave that up to the strategists."
I ask her to name her strengths and weaknesses.
"I don’t play the politics well. Policy gets me most excited."
Going out in Washington "is not fun," she emphasizes. She skips breakfast, has meetings around 9 a.m. "I’m not a real public person, which sounds strange for a politician. I don’t enjoy reading. I rarely enjoy speaking."
Her press secretary pops his head in. There’s a meeting she must attend. "Two-minute warning," he says.
She says she is looking forward to getting back on the campaign trail. The bus tours, the barbecues, waving her placards on the sidewalks, even if it means dodging cars trying to mow her down.
And the Senate is certainly a step up. A bigger staff, a nicer office. More power. More prestige. She is hoping to raise $20 million for her Senate race: "I’m looking forward to it."
She notes that it’s always "daunting" to take on an incumbent. "I recognize that will be difficult but you know, I love rock climbing. That’s one thing I looove. I can put my foot there and pull myself up. It’s like standing at the base of a mountain that’s completely vertical," she says, with a slightly glacial smile. "I can’t wait to do it."
Stephanie Mansfield, a national reporter for The Washington Times, has also written for The Washington Post "Style" section, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Elle, Vogue and GQ.