Cover Story

Trash and carry

In its attempt to carry Florida's 25 electoral votes, Al Gore's hit squad attacks a respected state official

Issue: "Judicial overreach?," Dec. 2, 2000

In the wee hours of Nov. 8, it dawned on Gore campaign officials that a little-known Florida official named Katherine Harris could block their candidate's path to the White House. Forthwith, they unleashed on her the dogs of war that formerly slashed Ken Starr.

When Secretary of State Harris, the Republican whose job it is to certify her state's presidential election results, indicated her intention to do so in accordance with the laws of Florida, the attack began. Gore spokesman Chris Lehane called Mrs. Harris a "crony of Jeb Bush" and a "lackey for the Bush campaign." Democratic strategist Paul Begala said she looked like "Cruella de Vil coming to steal the puppies." Celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz labeled Mrs. Harris a "crook."

Liberal reporters piled on, attempting simultaneously to cut up Mrs. Harris and dumb her down. USA Today painted her as a political dilettante who might be more comfortable passing finger sandwiches at an art gala than managing affairs of state: "Suddenly one of Tallahassee's most ambitious and high-profile hostesses is making a bigger splash than she could have dreamed." The Boston Globe was catty, describing Mrs. Harris as "Florida's ghoulishly made-up secretary of state.... Her mask of mascara and eye shadow cannot hide the obvious. Ambition empowers her to hide behind the letter of the law and thwart the spirit of the Constitution."

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But people who know Mrs. Harris say both the Gore camp and its media foot soldiers are dead wrong. "People complain about good people not wanting to serve in government," said former Florida state representative Joe Arnall, a six-term legislator who helped Mrs. Harris in her 1994 run for the state senate. "Here is a person who has the time and the talent to serve, then is subjected to unwarranted criticism. There is nothing in Katherine's past that would merit the kind of adjectives that have been used about her in recent days."

It is the press's misuse of adjectives that has prompted Mrs. Harris's decision to decline all requests for interviews, including WORLD's. That's a shame, because her career-from high-school National Honor Society in Bartow, Fla., to recent political successes-largely reads like a how-to guide to good citizenship. After earning a degree in history at Agnes Scott College, Mrs. Harris attended L'Abri International Fellowship near Geneva, Switzerland. L'Abri, a Christian mission founded in 1955 by the late Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer, now functions as an international study center whose purpose is to "demonstrate the truth and existence of God," Swiss L'Abri director Jim Ingram told WORLD. "Students here are able to address the current questions of our culture." Mr. Ingram worked at the center when Mrs. Harris attended, but said because she attended at least two decades ago, he was unable to answer questions about Mrs. Harris. After L'Abri, Mrs. Harris headed for the University of Madrid, where she studied Spanish and art.

Mrs. Harris and her husband, Anders Ebbeson, have attended Sunday worship and Wednesday night Bible-study services at 500-attendee Calvary Chapel of Tallahassee regularly since arriving in the city two years ago. (She maintains the Harris maiden name because she established her name in politics before she married Mr. Ebbeson.) Pastor Kent Nottingham describes her as a "quiet, unassuming non-grandstander." "We are covering her with prayer," he told WORLD.

So are others. Mr. Nottingham said Mrs. Harris told him last Sunday that she had received 400,000 e-mail messages from people saying they were praying for her. She said she "felt the presence of the Lord as a result, and didn't feel stressed or strained at all," he added. Mrs. Harris has been a platform leader in National Day of Prayer events at the capital.

Mrs. Harris's career path wound through IBM and real estate, where she became vice president of a commercial firm. In 1994, Mrs. Harris ran for and won a seat in the Florida State Senate. Between legislative sessions, she earned a master's degree in Public Administration at Harvard University. In 1998 she ran for secretary of state, one of six elected Florida State cabinet posts, beating GOP incumbent Sandra Mortham.

One sidelight of that campaign gives Mrs. Harris's smearers an opportunity. Investigators identified her as one of several dozen public officials who received illegal campaign contributions from Riscorp, a Sarasota-based insurance company. Riscorp had tried to skirt laws that cap the amount individual firms can donate to a single candidate by having employees donate money in their own names. It is unclear whether Riscorp gave employees money up front or reimbursed them after the fact, but company founder Bill Griffin pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge and was sentenced to a five-month prison term. Mrs. Harris, however, said she was unaware of Riscorp's arrangement with its employees, as well as how much money in total was coming from the firm. There was no evidence to the contrary. She was never charged with any campaign finance violations. She returned the $20,000 in illegal Riscorp contributions.

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