Katherine Harris: Woman in the Eye of the Storm

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Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris

When Katherine Harris speaks, people listen. And while that level of attention could have something to do with the fact that Florida's secretary of state may hold the keys to the presidency in her hands, it's not just the current circumstances that make people notice Harris. She's always made a splash wherever she goes.

The granddaughter of Ben Hill Griffin, a citrus magnate who was active in state politics, Harris grew up in the lap of luxury, and continues, according to many reports, to spend money — including taxpayers' money — with abandon. Since taking her current office in 1998, Harris, 43, has amassed more than $100,000 in travel bills, far more than any other statewide elected official; the trips were primarily "networking" and trade meetings overseas.

Money has often been the focal point in Harris's public life: She was also criticized for taking about $20,000 from Riscorp, a Florida-based insurance company, during one of her early campaigns, and although she was never charged in the case — a Riscorp executive was jailed — she said later she regretted "not knowing exactly how much they had given me." After lobbying for legislation perceived as helpful to the insurance industry, Harris later returned the cash and spearheaded campaign finance reform measures for Florida politicians.

As secretary of state (second in line for the governorship, after the lieutenant governor), Harris was widely expected to serve an unremarkable term; the post traditionally calls for a cheerleader who will drum up business and development deals within the state. Now, of course, Harris's days of national anonymity are behind her, as she wrestles with the responsibilities of her office and her allegiance to her party.

These days, while the foreign press fixates on her "impeccable" manicures and her penchant for "power suits," domestic reports focus primarily on Harris's newfound political power — and her longstanding connections to the Bush family.

Reportedly wary about entering politics six years ago — she had worked in commercial real estate before running successfully in 1994 for state senate — Harris has apparently found her groove. And not a moment too soon: After Jeb Bush recused himself from the Florida recount procedures, state law thrust Harris into the limelight. Her first task? Trying to convince observers that she can, in fact, serve impartially in the most treacherous political minefield in memory.

That could be difficult: Characterized as an energetic, "tough as nails" politico, Harris not only worked tirelessly for Governor Jeb Bush's reelection, she also was among the first campaign workers for George W. Bush's bid for the presidency. One political reporter remembers seeing Harris tromping through the February snow in New Hampshire, delivering strawberries and oranges to potential primary voters. Later in the year, Harris posted this endorsement on George W. Bush's official campaign site: "I am thrilled and honored to announce my support of George W. Bush for the presidency."

Some Republican insiders speculate that Harris could receive an ambassadorship if Bush is elected. Better make it somewhere eminently desirable. Heaven knows, if the GOP can seize the White House in this mess, they'll owe Harris at least that much.