I got word that Representative Katherine Harris was going to do a bus tour. Her campaign was floundering, and she had just injected $3 million of her own money and hired a new staff from out of state. Officially, the three mil is a loan but it’s not looking like she’s going to get any return on that investment. The former secretary of state of Florida, the woman most responsible for George W. Bush’s improbable victory in 2000, would not take a hint from Jeb or anyone else and drop out of the Senate race this November. So off I went on the bus.
Only two reporters showed up for the April bus tour, me and Bill Adair, the Washington bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times. It was a statement of how poorly things were going. I was surprised they even let me on but originally I was writing this for The Believer, and I think someone mistook that for a Christian magazine.
Anyway, by the time I arrived at the Tampa headquarters, it was pretty obvious they would take all comers. I think if Al Franken had expressed an interest they would have sat him right up front with the candidate. But nobody else was interested. People prefer to look to the future, and Katherine Harris is not the candidate who’s going to be leading the Republican Party. I’m less interested in the future. I’m still picking up the pieces of the last two elections, figuring out what went wrong, hoping for the kind of closure that will allow me to get on with my life.
They loaded us in a van filled with soda pop and potato chips. Katherine drove ahead in a mobile home. We left for Inglis-Yankeetown, where the candidate addressed the Republican Party spaghetti dinner. These were old people, very old. They didn’t come down on the 95 from New York. Instead they shuffled down the 75 from Michigan and Ohio and settled in the middle of the state where it was cheap and lonely. This was the corridor that won it for Bush in 2004.
Katherine told them we were going to keep our promises to seniors, to veterans. She talked about fixing the tax code. She said double taxing Social Security was wrong. She said her opponent, Bill Nelson, was an empty suit. She was given a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, which she placed on the table but didn’t eat.
She asked the audience to think about the challenges. “Could you imagine our security if Al Gore had been elected in 2000? Could you imagine what would have happened to our economy if John Kerry had been elected in 2004?”
She was starting to make me sad. I could imagine both of those things. I could imagine the $200 billion spent on a war with Iraq spent instead on education. I could imagine an America with serious partners and an agile military that wasn’t bogged down in an unwinnable war and wasn’t intent on forming a blockade around Iran.
But Katherine wasn’t asking me to envision these things, and everybody else was eating. Then she switched to fear. Mentioned the recession that George Bush inherited, 9/11, two foreign wars, greedy corporate executives in New York, SARS, anthrax, avian flu. “That would have been enough to destroy most countries’ economy,” she said. “But not ours. Why? Tax relief.”
She said our taxes are still too high. She said we have to protect our borders. “There are over 100,000 immigrants crossing our borders claiming asylum from different countries beside Mexico,” she said. “We issue a card and tell them to come back in a couple of years for a court date. We have no idea where they are. Some of those Middle Easterners, and others, that cross the border,” she continued, and then she paused. She may have recognized that she was headed down the road to some deeply offensive racist commentary, so she pulled herself back. “Anyone who cares about our death more than their own life is a serious threat. And so we have to make sure that we are protecting our borders.”
But she assured everyone she still wanted Mexicans to come in and work in tourism and rebuild the houses after hurricanes. She didn’t want the citizenry to have to worry about who was scraping the leaves out of the pool. She also said it was important temporary workers be just that—temporary.
I drove with Katherine between Inglis and Gainesville. I asked her point blank about the election of 2000. “I talked to my husband,” she said. “He told me it was simple. I just had to act with extraordinary integrity. So that’s what I did.”
“Really?” I asked, thinking back on Republican mobs shaking buildings where votes were being counted.
“I sleep so well at night,” she replied.
She has $10 million that she inherited from her father, so that might make for sweet dreams. But she pledged to spend it all on her campaign, and Democrats are more than happy to let her part with her money. There’s even a website dedicated to that proposition: makeherspenditall.com.
And she’s spending heavily on staff. Her communications director, Chris Ingram, is a Floridian but he’s a consultant first, and the Harris campaign is paying big bucks for his services. Many of her original staff have quit the campaign already, seeing what a long shot she is. The people replacing them are not true believers, and they are also not top-level movers and shakers. Her campaign manager came in from Illinois and her field director flew in from Missouri. This is the B team. Anybody that’s in it now is in it for the money. Which is fine. People have to eat.
One of Katherine’s senior staff says, “I think she’s going to win.” I look at her to see if she thinks we’re stupid.
Here are some things about Katherine Harris. She’s rich. She was raised rich. Her father owned a bank, and his name is on buildings all over Gainesville. He died just last January, and the word is that she never took the time off from the campaign to mourn. That’s when things started going wrong for her, as she changed the locks on her campaign headquarters and publicly accused staff of leaking stories. That’s when Sam Seder over at Air America began seriously questioning her mental health.
Here’s something else about Katherine Harris. She’s a better candidate than you might think. I didn’t want to believe that, but it’s true. She speaks easily, from memory, a long list of Republican talking points delivered with conviction if not understanding. She connects with a room. She seems to genuinely like meeting new people, and she loves attention. She has more energy than a coke fiend with an uncut supply of Colombian.
On a tighter ship, one that wasn’t already thirty points below the water, she would have a real chance. But it’s too late for that. It’s been too late since she announced her candidacy on Hannity & Colmes in three-quarter profile. Someone told her that was the most attractive way to be photographed but it’s a very strange way to address the camera. It didn’t help that the day she announced she would not quit the race she was photographed in a tight sweater riding a horse. Someone should have told her not to do that. Someone should also have told her not to accept tens of thousands of dollars in dubious contributions from the same defense contractor who bribed Duke Cunningham.
The following morning of the tour, she had breakfast with the Florida Federation of Republican Women in Micanopy. She said the same things but kept out the crack about “Middle Easterners and others.”
Later, at the Exchange Club, she would mention a woman she met in Micanopy who had been able to buy a house using the American Dream Downpayment Act, one of Katherine’s first bills in Congress. A woman from the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the featured speaker at the lunch, said that bill wouldn’t help her clients at all. Her clients made minimum wage at best; that was $800 a month. You could help with a down payment, but a bank wasn’t going to give them credit anyway. They needed subsidized housing. Katherine said she understood, but I don’t think she did. I don’t think she understood anything about a family trying to live on minimum wage. What she understood was middle class women from Micanopy who needed a small nut from the government to really get things started.
By the third night, I was already done. I’d heard her speech five times. The reception at the Best Western was the biggest event of her campaign swing through the north of the state. I would catch that and fly out on the first plane.
Thirty people arrived.
I met Harry Wine, a stocky man with a shirt stretched tightly over his large belly. He had a flat haircut and a Tabasco tie. He talked to me about the “fair tax,” which would bring money back to the country. “The fair tax,” he told me, “is 23 percent on everything retail. You don’t have to pay taxes on used stuff. And corporations don’t have to pay taxes at all. We could get rid of the IRS.”
There was a plate full of bite-sized quiches. I had a few of them.
“We could make trillions of dollars if we didn’t tax corporations,” he said. “All the offshore money would come back into the states.” Harry was a teacher at Job Corps.
Harry wasn’t alone. There was another man, a giant in a homemade T-shirt that had IRS in a circle-slash.
I asked Chris Ingram how Katherine felt about the fair tax plan. He said her position was to have a healthy debate. I said that wasn’t really a position. He said I could ask her myself, but I was pretty sure I knew what she would say.
Helen Sanderson was there. She had been at the breakfast earlier in Micanopy. Katherine greeted her, sliding her hand up and down her triceps. Helen was wearing a white and green jacket. Both ladies were wearing white skirts. Katherine held Helen’s hand for minutes.
I heard Katherine say, “Many scientific studies say oil is a finite resource. Not everyone agrees but I do.”
“What were you talking about?” I asked Helen.
“I’m not going to tell you,” she said smiling. “Where are you from anyway?”
“I’m from San Francisco,” I told her.
“California! Oh, what a terrible state. They’re so liberal and strange there.”
“Well, not really,” I said. “We gave you Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Pete Wilson.”
When almost everyone was gone Katherine sat with Justin Richards, an undergraduate from the University of Florida. He was at a table wearing a striped shirt and jeans and sandals. Katherine tucked her leg beneath her and sat close to the boy. I wondered what it would be like to be a twenty-year-old boy and to be flirted with by a forty-nine-year-old Congresswoman.
There was Justin: young, handsome, with smooth skin and a bright future. I heard him stutter. I heard her call him honey. I saw her heel brush his naked foot. I took pictures just to be sure. Their legs were less than an inch apart. She lowered her hand to her knee and her skirt rode just slightly up her leg. It wasn’t an accident. She was flirting with him.
But why? Hoping for good coverage from the college newspaper? Just to twist his young head? Or for other reasons, reasons that get at the heart of a doomed campaign and a pledge to spend $10 million of her own money, everything she has.
Of course, maybe that’s not the issue at all. Maybe what’s most important is the sign I first saw when I arrived at Katherine’s office.
The office seemed empty and ragtag, but that’s not unusual for a campaign office six months before an election. The thing that really caught my eye was a white sheet of paper tacked to the wall. It had seven words running vertically in large bold font, all of them left-justified except the last: INTEGRITY LOYALTY DEDICATION STRENGTH HONOR ENTHUSIASM WIN! The word WIN was centered, and I stared at that piece of paper trying to figure out what it meant.
I thought the first letters of each word taken together would spell something, but all they spelled was Ildshew. Then I thought maybe WIN wasn’t part of the puzzle, since it was the only word centered, but that spelled Ildshe, which didn’t make any sense either. A google search of Ildshew brought back no results and Ildshe only one, buried in a sequence alignment and modeling software system.
My subsequent thought was that this paper didn’t actually have any added meaning. They were just buzz-words with no particular relation to each other, no different from cutting taxes while promising expanded services. It was like a joke left behind by one of the staff that walked out when it became obvious the campaign wouldn’t win. But then we were all driving and we stopped in a Starbucks and Katherine offered to buy me a coffee.
I was invited to ride with her the short distance to the hotel. And when I climbed into the mobile home I saw the sign again, the same sign I had seen in her office: Ildshew. Idle wish?
Stephen Elliott is the author of the campaign memoir “Looking Forward to It: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process.”