The woman under fire

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris is suddenly Democrats' enemy No. 1 -- and they have lots of ammo to use against her.

By Jake Tapper

Published November 13, 2000 3:48PM (EST)

Monday morning in Tallahassee, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris told Vice President Al Gore's men in Florida -- former campaign chairman Bill Daley and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher -- that Tuesday at 5 p.m. would be the absolute deadline for recount numbers from any county.

This was a blow to Gore's team, as well as to several of the Democratic counties that had requested an extension, since a hand recount in Palm Beach County was revealing a narrowing in the margin between the totals of Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, and the Gore forces wanted more time to count all the ballots. Hand recounts picked up votes for both candidates that had not been registered in the machine count, but since the Democratic-leaning county voted for Gore more so than for Bush, the hand recount was revealing a net gain for Gore.

With an unofficial gap of only 288 votes, every single "hanging chad" has worldwide implications.

For that reason, Republicans had begun sniping at the decision by the two Democrats on the Palm Beach County board, Theresa LePore and Carol Roberts, to push for a countywide manual recount, for which the county would need an extension.

Likewise, Democrats were raising their eyebrows at Harris' ruling Monday morning, in which she effectively told LePore and Roberts to remove all thoughts of a countywide hand recount from their minds. The deadline will stand, Harris said in a statement, "in order to effectuate the public's right to clarity and finality."

"We think the action by the Florida secretary of state is arbitrary and unreasonable," Christopher said to reporters immediately after the meeting.

Other prominent Democrats immediately began piling on. On "Good Morning America," Sen. Joe Lieberman made note that Harris was a supporter of Bush.

Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Florida, argued that Harris's decision to not extend the deadline to at least Friday, is "bizarre," while also pointing out that she's Bush's state campaign co-chair."I honestly think what's going on is a strategic decision by the Bush campaign to hurt the litigation efforts," Deutsch said.

Even before Harris' decision had been declared, Gore supporters were already preparing to tar her as a biased, longtime supporter of Bush.

They didn't have to look too hard. Harris, first elected in 1988, was Bush's Florida co-chairwoman as far back as October 1999.

"I am thrilled and honored to announce my support of George W. Bush for the presidency," she said, as quoted in a "Bush for President" press release. Harris said that working with Bush's younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, "has provided a constant reminder of the power of values-based leadership -- the same leadership George has shown in Texas. I also share George's commitment to education, and I look forward to sharing his vision with Floridians."

She would later serve as a Bush delegate during the Republican National Convention.

Harris' activities on behalf of Bush went far beyond the normal activities of a state chairwoman, however. She was a presence on the Bush campaign in January, traveling with Jeb and 138 other Floridians as they flew from Miami and Tallahassee to New Hampshire on a leased Boeing 727 to campaign for the Texas governor in his primary campaign against Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Harris' presence on the tour -- called "Freezin' for a Reason" -- brought lovely photo ops of her and her fellow Floridians handing out bags of Florida oranges and Plant City strawberries.

It has also brought serious questions about her partisanship in light of her authority over the Florida controversy.

Indeed, by not allowing Palm Beach and other counties to extend their deadlines to, say, Friday, when the absentee ballots are due, Harris has made a ruling that undoubtedly has her friends in Austin, Texas, pleased, even though she can argue that she is just abiding by the state statute. The one provision in the statute that would allow her to waive the Tuesday 5 p.m. deadline would be in the case of a national emergency, like a hurricane. Such arguments hold little water with Democrats, however.

"She is clearly a partisan Republican -- and there's nothing illegal about that," said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. "And I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, expecting them to perform their public functions appropriately. But her actions will speak volumes about whether she is qualified. If she does this fairly, fine. But if she acts as an emissary for Bush to steal this election in Florida, she will delegitimize Florida's vote count."

This isn't the first time critics have questioned Harris' impartiality. Last month, the Tampa Tribune reported Harris had spent $100,000 in state funds on trips to New York, Washington and abroad, raising "speculation [about] Harris seeking an ambassadorship if Texas Gov. George W. Bush is elected president."

Additionally, Harris personally enlisted retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf in a Florida public service TV announcement urging Floridians to go to the polls. Schwarzkopf is a well-known Bush supporter who not only vouched for Bush during the Republican National Convention but appeared with the Texas governor at numerous campaign stops throughout the Sunshine State. Democrats and others criticized Harris for selecting someone so clearly aligned with the GOP candidate.

"The only reason to certify the elections at 5 p.m. tomorrow is a partisan one," Wexler said Monday. "If she does what she says she's going to do -- certify the elections at 5 p.m. tomorrow -- she will have proven her critics correct; she will have proven that she is an emissary of the Bush campaign who is willing to steal an election."

Whether that's true or not, Harris' actions throughout the past year have given critics plenty of ammunition to use against her.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections