Dispelling Cruella DeVil

Step into the foyer of Rep. Katherine Harris’s Washington office and watch out.

A large oil painting of charging wild elephants with sharpened white tusks is front and center. Perhaps this is for how Harris (R-Fla.) felt four years ago as Florida’s secretary of state, when she called the disputed election.

Harris has just walked in from a day of voting and committee hearings, but looks neither harried nor worn out. She’s armed with the day’s second cup of green tea and is resplendent in a heather-blue houndstooth suit with fringes that skim her knees, and beige heels with brown leather bows. Lovely gray pearls complete the look.

Harris hasn’t granted the Washington press a long interview in two years. She appears on TV rarely and has avoided the media glare.

Her hope is to do things but not necessarily get noticed. “I’ve really loved working behind the scenes,” she says. “When the cameras come in, I usually go out the back door.”

But the new Congress has brought change. Aides have departed to other careers and Harris has a new chief of staff and communications director — who both worked for Asa Hutchinson at the Department of Homeland Security.

By turning down a bid to run for Senate last year, Harris was able to concentrate on her district and build ties within the GOP leadership. Those close to her say she wants to dispel her negative image and announce, “Here I am, and it’s more than the recount and it always was.”

She is trying to secure a seat on the Homeland Security Committee and undertake her assignments as a member of the international-relations and financial-services panels.

So, what is she up to?

Two recent novelties: Last summer Harris bungee jumped off South Africa’s Victoria Falls, and two weeks ago she switching from lattes to green tea.

Perhaps the first was a symptom of her great energy, and a signal of yet more. Harris looks much younger than her 47 years. Aides attest to her high energy and maniacal attention to detail.

Her makeup is minimal and tasteful — during the 2000 recount her appearance drew acid comments, not least from Democratic operative Paul Begala, who compared her to Cruella De Vil — and her thick, shoulder-length brown hair hangs in long, soft layers. Her eyes are exotically dark. Still, she does not enjoy being photographed.

Her office is simple — an oak armoire and small “good luck” elephant bought on her honeymoon in Thailand.

She perches on the edge of a black leather armchair, legs crossed, one hand in her lap,the other holding her tea. Unsurprisingly, she is not at ease; her press has always been a roller-coaster.

Harris says she has heeded Rep. Connie Mack’s (R-Fla.) advice and doesn’t subscribe to her hometown paper, the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

“I don’t believe that for a heartbeat,” says Jeremy Wallace, a reporter who recently wrote a story about Harris leaving a golf fundraiser to try on inaugural ball gowns, “Sometimes she gets upset. I’ve had a decent relationship with her. She makes herself pretty scarce. She doesn’t always want to be talking about the celebrity portion she represents.”

Harris prefers the spotlight to shine on the 100 bills she passed in the Florida Senate, the $50 million her district won in appropriations, and her American Dream Downpayment Act that President Bush signed into law in 2003.  

She arrived to Congress in 2002 after winning retiring Rep. Dan Miller’s (R) seat with 55 percent of the vote.

Those who know her well say she can be outgoing, but it doesn’t come without effort. Ben McKay, her former chief of staff, says, “She’s got a great social instincts. She can walk into a room and know instantly who likes and dislikes who.”

A Florida political operative adds, “She has a fear about losing at anything. I don’t care if it’s tennis or passing a bill.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) says Harris came to Congress with “star power” but “parlayed her own fame…and helped a ton of freshman.”
She crossed the country and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for colleagues. She felt good, and they felt better.

“Katherine is a hero in Republican circles from Key West to Juno, Alaska,” says Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who served with her in the Florida Senate, “People were making fun of her intelligence, and she has a degree from Harvard,” a her master’s in public administration earned while serving in the Florida Senate.

Dan Berger, who served as her chief of staff and her campaign manager, remarks, “She’s smart as heck.”

She’s also good-looking, says Feeney, calling her “one of the most attractive women in popular culture.”

McKay, her press aide during the recount, says the makeup debacle was her male aides’ fault. “We’re obsessing on getting her speech ready,” he says, but she was asking how she looked.

“It’s a bunch of guys. What idiots are we? Shame on us for not seeing what was really important, for not realizing that she was going to be on TV, not radio.”

Feeney says the negatives “will linger with most bitter Democrats” because “politics is a rough business.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) marvels at what Harris has endured. “Can you imagine what would happen if they tried to talk about [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi’s [D-Calif.] breasts?” he asks incredulously, referring to press reports by female reporter who wrote about Harris’s physique during the recount.

“Nobody has had to endure the lies and cruelty of the Dan Rathers of this world like she has. They created a fake persona without taking the time to speak to her.

“Take a step back and think about it. It wasn’t her opponents, it was the national media. It was just a total, total distortion. It wasn’t Katherine they were describing. She’s open. She’s hardworking. She’s clearly liked. I’ve actually had Democrats say to me, ‘She’s different than I expected.’”

McKay mimics those who meet her for the first time: “‘Oh my God, I thought you were such a horrible person.’ They are surprised … because she is so nice and able to understand their point of view.”

Harris was born in Key West and raised in the small town of Bartow, Fla. She grew up in among Democrats with wealth and privilege — not Hollywood privilege, but private schooling and foreign travel.
Her grandfather, Ben Hill Griffin, one of the state’s largest landowners, has a stadium named after him in Tallahassee. Her father, George W. Harris Jr., runs Citrus and Chemical Bank. He has dressed in an Uncle Sam costume for his daughter’s political events.

Harris’s childhood was full of glorious memories. Girl Scouts. Tennis. Riding. Swimming in a spring-fed pool. Tending cows. Hunting birds and deer with her father and grandfather.

“We lived in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other,” she says. “I was a tomboy.” In high school she was voted prom queen. “Yeah, whatever,” she says, rolling her eyes, “That’s not the way it seemed at the time.”

Idyllic as her upbringing sounds, she says, “nothing has ever come easily. I have had to work for everything.”

Harris met her first Republican when she was 15. Her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis — Harris never discusses this with the press — switched parties during President Reagan’s second term. Harris switched soon after.

Her first came to Washington at 19 on a Lyndon B. Johnson scholarship for Rep. Andy Ireland (R-Fla.), and was offended by the way other female interns were treated. Nothing happened to her, but there were “personal aspects that I found disillusioning.’

In 1988, then-Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) restored her faith in politics when she worked on his congressional campaign.

Harris’s Presbyterianism is an important element of who she is. The subject comes up repeatedly in her book, but she bristles when asked to expand on the subject, merely observing that she had to “dig in” spiritually to endure the recount. She alludes to a God to whom she is “accountable,” but doesn’t describe herself as “religious” and never uses the word God.

“I don’t wear it on my sleeve,” she says, and is annoyed when politicians exploit faith for votes.

She and her Swedish husband, Anders, met on a blind date arranged by friends after her divorce from her first husband. “I trusted my friends’ judgment more than I trusted my own,” she says, laughing.

Nine months later, Harris and Anders married on New Year’s Eve in Paris, and honeymooned in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.

“He’s the most remarkable thing that has happened in my life,” she says, looking dreamy, “If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I could do this.”

She says he is a romantic, and mentions the call she received earlier that day to say he loved her.
Her closest confidants and some colleagues say Harris has always been underestimated, despite her beating an incumbent to win her Florida Senate seat and clobbering another to become Florida secretary of state.

“I like being underestimated,” she says. “Perceptions are what they are. I don’t have any control over that. People will choose to believe what they will. What I can do is put in the time, study the issues and work really hard.

As for the still-lingering bad public image, she brushes it off, saying, “You can’t meet everybody. My conscience is very clear.”
So what comes next?
“I am extremely happy here,” she says, although a Senate bid is “something I’ll look at down the road.”

For now, she stays put, as do the charging elephants in her foyer.

***
HELP HASTERT DECIDE NEXT ETHICS PANEL CHAIR

House Republican leaders have named the chairmen of every committee for the 109th Congress, with one notable exception – the always-controversial ethics panel. ITK has decided to help Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) by polling our readers on who should succeed Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.). Send in your choice for ethics committee chairman and explain why (“on background” submissions are welcome). Send your entries to
itk@thehill.com. ITK will reprint the most creative submissions next week.


FLIP-FLOPPERS

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) never shook the flip-flop label that Republicans kept applying throughout last year’s presidential campaign. But according to statistics compiled by the congressional website Thomas, Kerry was not the biggest flip-flopper in the 108th Congress.

That distinction goes to two senators, five House members and a former legislator. Each of them sponsored three different bills in the last Congress and then withdrew their support of the legislation. The list includes: Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Jim Bunning (R-Ky.); Reps. John Sullivan (R-Okla.), Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.); Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); and former Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.). Coleman, who was once a Democrat, publicly criticized Kerry in 2004 as a flip-flopper, while Coleman also flip-flopped from the Democratic to Republican Party.

Spokespeople for most of the lawmakers either declined to comment or could not be reached by press time. A Norton spokeswoman suggested the delegate is not much of a flip-flopper because she changed her mind on only one bill and was mistakenly listed as co-sponsor of the other two measures.


STATE OF THE UNION BLOGGING

If you’re jacked up for the State of the Union and looking for a new blog, you may want to check out
techcentralstation.com. The site is going to be a portal for prominent political bloggers (both liberal and conservative) who will be “live-blogging” during the president’s speech. The site will enable users to click on a variety of blogs to read commentary as Bush speaks.


MEHLMAN SNARES AWARD
Life is good for Ken Mehlman. President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, he received the coveted Campaign Manager of the Year Award at the Inaugural Pollie Awards and Conference held Jan. 21 in Washington. The American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC), which hosts the largest gathering of political hired guns, meets annually to confer special recognition on its members for achievements in the prior election year.

Art Hackney, an AAPC board member and co-chairman of the conference, said, “The AAPC is a bipartisan organization that promotes excellence and ethics among campaign professionals, and Mehlman received this honor with unanimous support from both Democrats and Republican alike.”