Reno has some party bosses cringing

Thursday, September 6, 2001

MIAMI -- Janet Reno crisscrosses Florida in a red pickup. Those who have something to say to her can just call her up -- she's in the book. And when she announced for governor, she didn't call a news conference; she invited reporters over to her rustic house for one-on-one interviews.

In an age of slick, blow-dried politicians, Reno's campaign to be the next governor of Florida promises to be unlike any seen in years.

But to some Democratic Party officials, her unorthodox ways and her close association with the controversies of the Clinton years make her candidacy a nightmare at worst, a giant leap of faith at best.

"She's quality, but I don't want to see this election turn into a Bill Clinton agenda and a Janet Reno agenda from the Clinton years," said Hillsborough County chairman Mike Scionti. "It's crazy. It's the worst thing the Democratic Party could do."

Good for Republicans

Adam Goodman, a Florida-based GOP strategist, said: "As far as Republicans are concerned, a Reno candidacy is a good thing."

Democratic leaders are aiming to deny Gov. Jeb Bush a second term. They consider the race a golden opportunity for retribution for the overtime 2000 election and a chance to weaken President Bush before the 2004 White House campaign.

But afraid that Republicans will paint her as too liberal, many Democrats are unconvinced that Reno is the answer. Some party leaders tried to persuade Reno to stay on the sidelines, pointing to polls that show her easily winning the Democratic nomination but failing to muster enough swing voters to defeat Bush.

"When you get people telling you that you're wonderful and telling you 'I'll support you,' it's hard not to think you'd win," said Tallahassee lawyer Dexter Douglass. "I'd imagine it's like serving in combat: A lot of dead people never thought they'd get shot."

First statewide race

This is the first statewide campaign for Reno, who served five terms as prosecutor in Dade County before becoming President Clinton's attorney general in 1993.

Her journey for governor has been anything but typical. She usually travels alone to campaign stops -- sometimes several hours away -- in a Ford Ranger she bought when she left Washington. She acts as her own press secretary and scheduler, though she recently opened a small office where one employee works. At town meetings, she speaks so softly that people have to crane their necks to hear her.

Shunning a swank hotel to announce her candidacy Tuesday, Reno gave five-minute interviews to reporters in the back yard of her home, which is cooled by a single rusty window air conditioner. She still lives in the unpainted cypress wood and adobe house her mother built a half-century ago when the family moved to what was then the wild western edge of Miami.

"I can't recall a time when I have seen a candidate do the legwork before an announcement that she has done," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.

"The 'aw-shucks' approach. 'Just li'l ol' me tackling the world' to try to soften her image. It has been extremely creative and very strategic."

Chiles comparison

Many compare her to Democratic former Gov. Lawton Chiles, the folksy, self-described "he-coon" -- the wiliest raccoon in the forest -- who walked the state to build support when he first ran for Senate in 1970.

"She's a lot like Lawton. From her standpoint there's nothing unconventional about it. It's how she approaches life," said former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, who served with Chiles. "There's something about her that leads ordinary people to believe that this is someone you can trust. What you see is what you get."

Reno likes to tell people of the days when she navigated Florida's lakes and rivers with her mother in a motorboat. "You had two stringy-haired ladies and we had cutoff dungarees," she recalled in a speech in June.

Reno is an avid kayaker and submits it as evidence she has the vigor to deal with Parkinson's disease, first diagnosed in 1995.

She likes to remind people "sometimes it's good to laugh at yourself," recounting her appearance on "Saturday Night Live" when she parodied herself and proclaimed: "It's Reno time!"

Reno, 63, enters the Democratic fray with nearly universal name recognition. She has said she proved her ability to make hard decisions when she authorized the raid at Waco and the seizure of Elian Gonzalez -- decisions for which she has been vilified and that are certain to become campaign issues.

While 30 percent of registered Democrats live in South Florida's Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, party members consider the general election to hinge on central Florida's Interstate 4 corridor, which is rich with independent voters.

"I haven't spoken to any Democrat who says, 'That's wonderful news,"' Polk County Democratic chairwoman Sharon Becker said of Reno's candidacy. "Everybody says to a man, 'Oh, I wish she wouldn't."'

While Republicans try to hold back their enthusiasm, some Democrats are pointing to alternatives such as former Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, Rep. Jim Davis and House Minority Leader Lois Frankel.

All of which is making for some nervous Democrats like Jack Curtiss, a Cooper City activist who folded his arms and shrugged at a Reno event in North Miami. He blames her in part for the FBI's botched spy investigation of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.

"As far as I'm concerned, if Reno's the nominee, Jeb Bush can sleep soundly," Curtiss said.

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