By Richard Jerome
December 04, 2000 12:00 PM

In December 1992 Florida citrus heiress Katherine Harris, then 35, was looking for a change of pace. She found it when she was cast as a “guest hostess” in a Sarasota, Fla., revue called Mr. Chatterbox’s Sentimental Journey. “One of the high points of the act was the Goldie Twins, German female contortionists,” recalls Robert Plunket, the show’s star. “They could smoke cigarettes held in their toes.”

A lesser draw was Harris. “She would bring guests out of the audience and give them gift certificates to Wendy’s or coupons for free dry cleaning,” says Plunket, 55. “She led the audience in doing the chicken dance.” He smiles. “There was something about the way she flapped her arms.”

American politics has seen its share of unlikely scenarios, but who could have predicted that the presidential election of 2000 would devolve into something like a nasty student-council race, with George W. Bush and Al Gore locked in chad-to-chad combat over Florida and its 25 electoral votes? And who could have imagined that a lightning rod in the extra-inning recounting marathon would be Katherine Harris, who, after flirting with the stage, entered Republican politics, was elected to the Florida state senate and since 1999 has served as Florida’s secretary of state. Her $106,000-a-year post is partly ceremonial—voters have chosen to abolish it in 2002—but not without a small but significant measure of clout.

In fact until the Florida supreme court restrained her—eventually ruling late on Nov. 21 that the ballot recount should continue—Harris had asserted that it was her statutory duty to certify the state’s presidential vote totals by Nov. 17, with Bush ahead by several hundred votes and without the hand recounts the Gore campaign had requested in three large predominantly Democratic counties. If Harris had been distressed by the prospect of being overruled, she hadn’t shown it. “This thing is in the hands of the supreme court,” she said in a rare interview with the Tallahassee Democrat on Nov. 19. “And they’re going to do their job, I’m sure, with integrity.”

But her critics showed less equanimity, inflamed as they were by her long-standing credentials as an unabashed Republican partisan, an ally of the GOP candidate’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and cochair of George W.’s Florida campaign. (According to The New York Times, she had even mused aloud about the possibility of an ambassadorship in the event that Bush was elected.)

“She knows the results she wants to reach and she’s tailoring her actions to reach those results,” says Florida state Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat from Palm Beach County. But supporters see Harris as a heroine. “She is the most unjustly vilified person I have ever seen,” asserts former Florida Gov. Wayne Mixson, 78, a Democrat who is also a Harris family friend and a Bush backer. Indeed, Harris has received thousands of supportive e-mails and floral bouquets from around the country.

Married since 1996 to second husband Anders Ebbeson, 55, a wealthy Swedish-born businessman she met on a blind date, Harris is no stranger to controversy. When first elected state senator in 1994, she was investigated for accepting illegal campaign contributions, though not implicated in wrongdoing. As secretary of state, she has been criticized for spending taxpayers’ money on expensive excursions—including a trip to the Sydney Olympics—to drum up foreign trade. Worth an estimated $6.5 million, Harris is also a patron of the arts and a fixture on the Sarasota social scene.

“She’s famous for her cleavage,” says Plunket. And why not? ask pals. “She has a beautiful body,” says Patricia Caswell, executive director of the Sarasota Arts Council. “She wasn’t going to cover it up.” Friends describe Harris as athletic and down-to-earth. “She has an incredible breadth of intelligence,” adds attorney Lamar Matthews. “Southern women aren’t supposed to be smart; they’re just supposed to cook fried chicken and look friendly.”

Had she chosen to, Harris could easily have afforded to do just that. She grew up in rural Bartow, Fla., northeast of Tampa, the oldest of three children of George Walter Harris, now 66, CEO and president of Citrus and Chemical Bank, and his wife, Harriet, also 66. (Her brother George III, 41, owns an Aspen restaurant; sister Fran, 37—singer Amy Grant’s college roommate—lives in Franklin, Tenn., with her husband, Christian recording artist Wes King.) Harris’s parents were multimillionaires; her maternal grandfather, citrus magnate and Republican state legislator Ben Hill Griffin Jr., was one of Florida’s richest and most powerful men, worth about $300 million when he died at 79 in 1990. But Katherine never flaunted her wealth. “She was sort of one of the guys,” says childhood pal Bud Mears, 44, a Bartow bank president. “I don’t think she ever thought she was pretty, but she certainly was.” At Bartow High School, Harris was a top student, a Homecoming Sweetheart and Miss January on the school calendar. After earning a history degree from Atlanta’s all-female Agnes Scott College in 1979, she worked as an IBM marketing executive and, later, vice president of a Sarasota real estate firm. In 1985 she wed attorney Thomas Arnold, now 42. They had no children and divorced four years later.

In the early ’90s Florida’s late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles named Harris to the board of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. In 1994 she was elected to the state senate, where she served while shuttling to and from Boston obtaining a master’s degree from Harvard with a specialization in international trade and negotiations.

Then in February 1996 her friend Tana Sandefur set up a blind date with Ebbeson at the Sarasota Opera. “When he saw her, his eyes lit up like he’d won the prize,” recalls an observer. The couple married in a Florida civil service just before Christmas 1996, then had a religious ceremony in Paris on New Year’s Eve. Though the two share Florida homes in Longboat Key and Tallahassee, they are said not to live to excess. “She doesn’t have access to her money,” says Sandefur, 67. “It’s tied up in land and oranges.”

Harris won her current post in 1998, and last year she spoke at her alma mater, Agnes Scott, observing that these are exciting times for women. “The only place we’re going to be a victim is in our head,” she said. “It’s just a matter of rising to the scenario.” Whatever scenario Harris has in mind for herself—she has spoken of seeking a U.S. Senate seat—she will endure as a symbol of an election that, more than any other, gave Americans a long hard look at the messy details of their cherished democracy.

Richard Jerome

Linda Trischitta in Miami, Lori Rozsa and Siobhan Morrissey in Tallahassee and Kristin Harmel in Sarasota