Katherine Harris Goes to Washington

When you think of the words "principled leadership," the image of Katherine Harris may not come automatically to mind. After all, this is the woman who conveniently forgot to resign her job as secretary of state before she filed to run for Congress this summer (even though she was in charge of the state's election laws). She got the nickname "Princess Katherine" for using public funds to enjoy cushy hotel rooms and other perks, and sponsored legislation in the Florida Senate that she later said she didn't understand. And, lest we forget, Harris certified George W. Bush's election over Al Gore in Florida in 2000 despite the fact that not all of the ballots were recounted.

Nevertheless, Harris is now out with a book titled, "Center of the Storm: Practicing Principled Leadership in Times of Crisis." Harris outlines 12 ideas -- from "finish what you start" to "embrace the differences" -- that she says are key characteristics of leadership. It's those lessons one presumes that she'll take with her to Capitol Hill next month, and Republicans couldn't be happier about her arrival. At a fundraiser earlier this year, incoming House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) called her "a national hero" and "a national treasure." And last week, incoming House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) appointed her assistant majority whip, which means she'll be in the GOP leadership's inner circle, an unusual position for a freshman lawmaker.

So why did Harris write this book? If you were cynical, you could say it's because she wanted to get even more attention for her election campaign (not that it needed it -- she won with 55 percent of the vote and had a huge fundraising edge). Harris and her publisher insisted that she begged the company not to print the book before Election Day, but the media interviews and other chances to plug the book when it hit bookstores in September didn't exactly hurt her campaign. And if you're not cynical, you can go to Harris' own words about why she wrote the $22.99 book published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. As she states, Harris "found [herself] wishing for a 'boot camp' for leaders, a workshop or retreat designed to help legislators look deeply into how their motives, goals and principles could survive and prevail in the real world of government." Call me crazy, but don't you think Harris would have gotten some of that training in her master's program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government?

A look at Harris' record in public office -- four years in the state Senate, four as Florida's secretary of state -- would indicate she's not exactly a principled leader herself. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, as secretary of state Harris traveled more than any other top-level state official except for Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) when she got into office. State Senate President John McKay, a Republican, tried to cut her travel expenses. When Harris was asked about staying in a $300 hotel room, she responded that the room was for two people and was necessary to increase international trade. "There's been an inordinate return on taxpayers' dollars," she said.

In 1996, the newspaper noted, Harris sponsored an amendment at the behest of a lobbyist that she admitted she didn't fully comprehend. And she took money from a company in 1994 that reimbursed its employees for money they donated to her campaign -- a violation of election laws that landed one company official in jail. Harris refunded the money, but said, according to the paper, "There was no way any of us could have known what was going on behind the scenes. Many of those were seasoned politicians. It was my first run, and I was the only candidate who paid back those donations."

All of these incidents were enough for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and another local newspaper, the Bradenton Herald, to decide not to endorse Harris this fall. "As we stated before the primaries, the Herald-Tribune recommended Harris four times for election to public office," the paper's editorial noted. "The recommendations were made with reservations, sometimes with trepidation, but always in the hope that experience would help Harris harness her extraordinary energy, bring clarity to her views and teach her to avoid these embarrassing blunders . . . Nothing has occurred in the general election campaign to suggest that anything will change for the better."

One of Harris' jobs as secretary of state was to be an expert at following the law. Indeed, talking about the 2000 election to Fox News Channel in August, she said, "The personal attacks were tough. Following the law was pretty simple." Apparently, it wasn't simple enough for Harris this year. In the book's afterward, Harris writes about her failure to resign as secretary of state while running for Congress. She had planned to step down on August 13, but was forced to depart on August 1 when it became clear she should have left office on July 15. ("I was familiar with the resign to run law, having addressed its ramifications under other circumstances during my administration," she writes.) Because the job of secretary of state was moving from an elected position to an appointed position, she violated "no rule, and certainly not the law." But then she says she stepped aside in order to follow the spirit of the law. So was she violating it or not? (If she can't manage to understand the laws in Florida, imagine how well she'll do trying to understand the laws of an entire nation.)

And Harris took what has to be a questionable action when she used some of the 750,000-plus e-mail addresses of people who wrote her during the 2000 election crisis for campaign purposes. According to the St. Petersburg Times, her e-mail read: "You are receiving this e-mail because you personally corresponded with Katherine at some time during the past year, most likely during the recount in Florida of the presidential balloting . . . Katherine is a candidate for the United States Congress from Southwest Florida. If you would like to remain on her mailing list and be contacted periodically about the race, do nothing."

It's strange that Harris is even in politics today. She interned in college for Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), who told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune recently, "She didn't think it was a great avocation. There was a lot about it she found distasteful. I have no idea what prompted her to change her mind." And even while some Republicans are talking about a possible run by Harris for higher office -- perhaps when Democratic Sen. Bob Graham faces reelection in two years or even someday for the White House -- Harris told Fox News Channel in August, "People who really care about me couldn't possibly wish that on me."

Harris will no doubt continue to garner media attention as she begins her career on Capitol Hill. Hopefully, some of that will focus on the discrepancies in statements she's made. On her campaign website, Harris thanked voters for choosing her as their next member of Congress. "You exercised one of the greatest powers on earth -- the power to vote!" It's too bad Harris didn't give everyone that chance when she certified the election results in Florida two years ago. After all, doing that would have been a real sign of principled leadership. But then Katherine Harris might not be where she is today.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a senior editor of the Prospect.