The Magazine

The Freshman They Love to Hate

She's running for the Senate--but not this year.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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WHEN I MEET Florida representative Katherine Harris in her Capitol Hill office, she pumps my hand and greets me in a gravelly voice. "I lost it somewhere in Iraq," she explains. "I think it was the sand." Harris is not as forbidding as she appears on television. She's small, athletic-looking, and--today at least--not made-up.

We sit down to chat, and Harris slides to the edge of her chair. She gestures with her hands to emphasize important points. If an aide interrupts, she taps her fingers on her armrest or cuts him off, then holds forth for minutes, reeling off numbers and other particulars relating to policies.

It's a good thing Harris brims with anxious energy. She has a lot to keep up with. The former Florida secretary of state, both famous and infamous for her role in the Florida recount in 2000, is adjusting to life on the Hill. "I have to constantly be running," she says. "It's a vertical learning curve. The issues are the same at the state level, but here the nuances are completely different."

During her first term, Harris has been tapped for the prestigious Whip Team and sits on the International Relations, Financial Services, and Government Reform committees. She's still asking for extra committees. "Katherine is tireless on the floor," House majority whip Roy Blunt said. "The thing that surprised people most was that she wasn't anything like the view projected by the national media."

Though Harris is only a freshman in Washington, she may be one of the most polarizing figures in the House. What other House member has been parodied by Ana Gasteyer on Saturday Night Live and made fun of on the Late Show? "Katherine Harris is in the middle of her 15 minutes of fame," David Letterman said on November 27. "Stage One: public ridicule. Stage two: the beauty makeover. Stage three: posing nude for Playboy. Stage four: becoming Mrs. Larry King."

Four years after she oversaw the ballot recount in Florida, she still regularly makes the news. A New York Times editorial on February 15 concluded that, "In 2000, the American public saw, in Katherine Harris's massive purge of eligible voters in Florida, how easy it is for registered voters to lose their rights by bureaucratic fiat." On Meet the Press on February 22, Ralph Nader told Tim Russert that the election "was stolen by Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush and their cohorts from Tallahassee to the Supreme Court."

Harris says the assaults on her character are "personally difficult," but she finds Nader amusing. "We're delighted he's in the election and wish him well." And of 2000 she says, "It's all rather humorous that Nader insists that it wasn't him who hurt Gore in Florida. They couldn't find one letter of the law I violated. If Al Gore had won his own state we wouldn't be in this situation."

Harris insists that her experience with Democrats on the Hill has been cordial. She practices Tae Kwon Do in the mornings with several male Democratic colleagues. "They realized I wasn't Cruella De Vil. Of course, then again, you won't find them defending me."

If Harris is polarizing, though, she's also upwardly mobile. Beltway insiders speculated that she'd run for the Senate in November, but in January at the Boys and Girls Club in Sarasota, she withdrew her name from a field of candidates to replace Bob Graham in 2004 despite "every poll showing me leading the race." She says she has unfinished business in the House and denies reports that Karl Rove told her to sit the race out. She's also dismissed the rumor that she was offered a consolation prize: to run against Democratic senator Bill Nelson in 2006. "The word is she got a deal," a source from a Florida newspaper said. "I don't know if it's true, but I wouldn't be surprised."

The White House hasn't said much about the race, but there are two reasons why they might want her to wait. One is Mel Martinez. The former secretary of Housing and Urban Development resigned in December and is emerging as one of the Republicans' best bets to expand their narrow majority in the Senate. Senate leadership supports him, and he should help draw Florida's expanding Hispanic population to the voting booths.

The second is Harris herself. Republicans have expressed concern that she might spur Democrats still angry about the 2000 election to vote against both her and President Bush. They hope Martinez will prevent that and help bring out Hispanics for Bush.

Harris won't say whether she plans on challenging Nelson in 2006, but she's fed the speculation. "I'm here to announce my candidacy for the U.S. Senate--but just not yet this year," she said at the Boys and Girls Club. She's also said she'll do everything she can to ensure a Republican senator in Florida. "She's looking to position herself for the Senate in 2006," a GOP strategist in Washington said. "She'll raise a ton of money and be a very attractive candidate in a Republican primary."