Harris sought political makeover

In the middle of the election crisis, Florida's embattled secretary of state turned to a high-level GOP political consultant.

By Jake Tapper
December 23, 2000 2:10AM (UTC)
main article image

So how did 36-year-old political consultant Dan Schnur come to be sitting in the living room of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris on Dec. 4, advising her on how to handle her post-recount PR makeover?

It wasn't as though he didn't have enough on his plate. The one-time spokesman for former California Gov. Pete Wilson and the Golden State arm of the failed presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had of course been following the activities in Florida when he wasn't busy teaching political science at UC-Berkeley.


Then one day in November, Schnur got a call from a mutual friend of his and Harris'.

Harris had just emerged as the Democrats' public enemy No. 1. A former Florida co-chair of Gov. George W. Bush's campaign, Harris was in charge of the setting the rules for the contested state presidential election. She was derided by Vice President Al Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, as a "hack" and "Commissar Harris." Other Democratic operatives were spreading ugly rumors about her, as left-leaning pundits and late-night comics mocked her appearance.

"She's obviously going through a very difficult time during this whole recount period," the friend said. "Would you be willing to talk to her about her situation?"


Schnur, a loyal Republican, said, "Of course, tell her to give me a call."

On Nov. 27, the day after Harris certified Florida's 25 electoral votes for Bush, a call came from Tallahassee to Schnur's San Francisco home.

"She said she knew I had done a lot of communications work and that if I was willing to spend some time talking to her, she'd appreciate it," Schnur says. They rapped for about an hour.


As Harris was being caricatured as a power-hungry Cruella DeVil, Schnur found her a sympathetic character. "Here's a mid-level state elected official who's in way over her head in terms of media and public interest and doesn't quite know how to handle it," he says. She clearly knew her job, he thought, but she "wasn't prepared for this kind of media onslaught."

She didn't even have a press secretary, she told him. "There had never before been a need for one," she said.


They made arrangements for Harris to fly Schnur in.

On Dec. 3, he arrived in Tallahassee. He stayed at a Marriott on the edge of town. "The lawyers and media had all the real hotels," Schnur jokes. The next day, Schnur, Harris and her advisors hunkered down in her living room for a few hours.

"I liked her," he says. "Partisanship aside, I got the feeling that here's somebody trying to do her job to the best of her abilities. She was clearly frustrated. No matter what she did, she was getting second-guessed by somebody."


Schnur says he told her that he was not qualified to advise her on any of the recount activities, or even how to best present her decisions. Where his advice was worth something, he says, was with suggestions about what to do after the storm had passed.

Did she know what she was going to do next? Her position, the Florida secretary of state, is being phased out. Was she going to run for another office? Did she want a post with the Bush administration?

Harris made it clear, Schnur says, that she was still considering a number of options. But that didn't seem to matter to her so much. "Her primary objective was less to position herself for another career move than to clear her good name," he says. "She felt she had put in a number of years in public office, and over a couple of weeks she had become this caricature."


That's not how Schnur saw her, he insists. "She was the exact opposite of the caricature. She's a very nice, warm, smart woman. But she was somebody who had rocketed about eight levels up the political media ladder in a day. It would have been almost impossible for anyone who has the spotlight thrust on them immediately not to be somewhat stung by it. She was still somewhat taken aback by the level of intensity of the attention."

Schnur refuses to discuss what he specifically recommended. Will she go on Barbara Walters? Diane Sawyer? Ted Koppel? Will she turn up next on MTV or, perhaps, as the new ambassador to Chad? Schnur stays mum.

"Very generally, my advice was more in terms of substantive goals and tasks than stylistic suggestions," he says. In any case, that's how he became a "footnote to an endnote to history."

Any similarities between Harris and McCain?


"They both have two arms and two legs," Schnur says. "They both wear shoes."

Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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

George W. Bush