A Wrong Turn On Road To Tallahassee

economist Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial
In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at the latest Florida election fiasco.

The candidate hates soft money. She refuses to put forward major policy initiatives without documented research on what their implications would be. She doesn't care what the press says about her and doesn't believe in polls. She thinks paid advertising is overrated and dumbs down discourse. She makes every controversial issue she has tackled front and center in her campaign because she firmly believes that once voters know the facts they'll understand and do the right thing.

Sound like the model public official? That's what Janet Reno thought.

Reno's friends and political advisers spent the past few months tearing their hair out trying to convince her that the qualities that made her such an admirable Attorney General were precisely those that made her a terrible political candidate. Interviews with her most loyal supporters over the past few days revealed a struggle inside her campaign that spilled over to the decision on how to deal with the screwed-up Florida primary.

When Reno let it be known in May of 2001 that she was thinking about running for governor, the national media was intrigued, her friends were both amused and concerned and the Florida Democratic Party was nervous. A poll in the Miami Herald showed her with a huge advantage among Democrats and running tantalizingly close to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Coming off the presidential election, Democrats were gunning for Bush, who they believed was vulnerable and the major player in "stealing" the White House from Al Gore. After Reno made it clear she was serious about running, other promising candidates – including Rep. Jim Davis and former Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson – dropped out, believing Reno would siphon off money and support. After Sept. 11, Jeb Bush's ratings rose and two notions set in among Florida Democrats: that Jeb Bush would be hard to beat and that Janet Reno would cruise through the primary and then lose badly in the general election.

By the beginning of 2002, however, doubts started to surface about Reno's certainty to win the Democratic nomination. Concerns about her Parkinsons' disease resurfaced after she collapsed while giving a speech in upstate New York. In addition, a popular Florida Democratic fund-raiser and lawyer, Bill McBride, who had a very close personal friendship with the head of the Florida AFL-CIO, decided to get into the race. He immediately started raising serious money with the backing of the Democratic Party and the unions, and, in the end, outspent Reno by more than three to one.

According to her friends, Reno ran the campaign she wanted to run. She "dealt" with the Waco and Elian Gonzales issues by going on every local talk show she could find to explain the merits of her case. She drove around the state in her little red truck with her brother riding shotgun talking to voters and generating lots of folksy press. Gimmicks like this had worked for Florida Democrats in the past. Former Gov. Bob Graham started campaign workdays in the 1970's taking the jobs of average people for a day to show he was in touch with their lives, and former Gov. Lawton Chiles won the state after walking across it. The red truck was Janet's shtick.

She then showed her sense of humor by replicating Saturday Night Live's famous Janet Reno Dance Party and garnered tons of national media. Meanwhile, McBride was raising tons of money and running TV ads showing why he should be elected.

Two weeks ago, the polls started to shift, and McBride and Reno were even by Election Day; a few polls even showed McBride slightly ahead. Then the election fiasco kicked in.

Reno went to vote in Miami and saw the problems firsthand. People – her people – started leaving the polling place because the waits were too long. Her campaign asked Gov. Bush to extend the polling hours in her south Florida stronghold. But in some places they paid no attention and once again Florida officials had a hard time getting the vote count straight.

McBride had a lead of 19,000 votes on Election Night, which Reno was sure would dwindle as her counties came in. Pressure started to rise from Democrats who wanted her to concede immediately. She refused. By the weekend there was a mini-lobbying campaign by some of her old friends trying to persuade her not to block McBride. "She's starting to prove the boys right," one of them said. "She's looking like what they feared all along. Not a team player, only concerned about herself."

But Reno believed to her core that a principle was at stake here, and despite the fury of the party establishment she was going to make sure that all the votes were counted before she caved. She proposed to McBride that they campaign together until the results were clear. He declined but was careful to avoid getting her too riled so she might challenge the results in court.

In the end, Reno bowed out gracefully, vowing to fight to clean up the voting system in Florida. She said she'd make election reform her crusade in the next few months. None of her friends doubt her word. They only wish she could have done it from the statehouse in Tallahassee rather than from her little red truck.