Tough enough? 

Janet Reno is rapping. We are standing in front of the Okaloosa County Courthouse, where Reno is holding court during one of many campaign stops in the Florida Panhandle last week. The group she faces is largely older, largely white. But here is Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, in a pink off-the-rack dress suit, answering a question about deadbeat dads by rapping a few bars from a song dedicated to her. As a Dade County prosecutor in the mid 1980s, Reno was so well-known for making fathers pay child support that the female hip-hop group Arquette released a song about her in 1988. As the candidate now sings it, "Janet Reno is on your trail/ If you don't pay, she'll put your 'blank' in jail."

Reno reportedly didn't like the song when she first heard it as a state attorney in Miami. And though the rhymes sound more like seventh-grade poetry through Reno's anglicized phrasing (including the careful omission of profanity), the fact that the introverted Reno is rapping shows the levels to which she will go to connect with voters. This is a candidate, after all, who boasts zigzagging 44,000 miles across Florida in a modest red Ford Ranger pickup truck, signing autographs, granting photo ops and receiving news from her constituents with such homespun expressions as "I'd be tickled" and "Oh, my goodness."

Many Florida residents, in turn, appear to connect with Reno. Despite temperatures approaching 100 degrees, and despite warnings from political analysts that voters won't pay attention to the Democratic primary until Labor Day, crowds of 50 to 100 people turn out for many of Reno's Panhandle visits, surprising on occasion even Reno herself.

"She has a starlike quality," Tom McGee, a Walton County Democrat, says. "But once you meet her, you realize what you see is what you get. Few people are that genuine and that forthright. What more can you ask for?"

The media, meanwhile, eat up each Reno campaign stop. News cameramen rush ahead of her as she walks into offices to shake hands with county workers. Reno's main competitor for the Sept. 5 Democratic primary, Bill McBride, didn't get the same degree of coverage when he appeared in the Panhandle several months ago. But as a Panama City reporter explains, McBride's visit also coincided with a heavy local-news day.

Unlike McBride, Reno can reach for the heavy artillery when she really needs to, appearing on Jay Leno's show or bringing in "West Wing" actor Martin Sheen, as she did recently to political functions in Orlando and Tampa. "She's running a very clever campaign," says University of South Florida political scientist Susan McManus. "She gets mass quantities of media coverage without spending a dime of her campaign funds."

Even so, Reno is not a lock to become governor. Her politics are considerably left of many Florida voters, and many of the specifics behind her vision for a better state seem underdeveloped.

Reno also is about as unconventional a bona fide gubernatorial candidate as Florida has seen in some time, maybe ever. She is a 63-year-old unmarried woman suffering from Parkinson's disease who has never completely shaken rumors about her androgynous appearance or sexual identity. She has been spoofed by "Saturday Night Live" (and has appeared on the show), as well as by the gross-out TV cartoon "South Park." The Washington Post once received an anonymous videotape labeled "Janet Reno: Evil Lesbian."

Questions about Reno's sexual identity are nothing new. They have dogged her since at least the mid-1980s when political rival Jack Thompson asked her to fill out a questionnaire identifying her sexual orientation. Reno refused. Days later, however, she told reporters, "I'm an old maid who prefers men." Reno downplays the notoriety, explaining that her famed height -- she's 6 foot 1 -- is to blame for the perverse interest in her sexuality.

On the campaign trail, Reno addresses the Parkinson's with a homespun anecdote. Holding her trembling hands for all to see, she reports that a lady in Quincy told her, "I don't care what her hand does. I'm interested in her head. And her head's just fine." That line usually draws cheers and laughter.

Yet even if Reno is successful in parrying the question of her health, she will still be a target, based on her eight memorable years as the nation's top law-enforcement official. Though she was Bill Clinton's third choice to lead Justice, she is generally regarded by conservatives as the woman Clinton hid behind when dodging Whitewater allegations or requests for a special counsel to investigate campaign contributions from the Oval Office. Or she's defined as the person who authorized the overzealous use of force in Waco, Texas, that led to the deaths of 75 Branch Davidians in 1993. Or the person who spat on democracy by returning Elian Gonzalez to his father in Communist Cuba instead of allowing him to be raised by relatives in America.

Conservatives tend to detest her. "All the stuff she's pulled, she ought to be in jail for treason," says Anne Ryan, a member of the Walton County Republican Club.

Such passion is already running high on both sides. At the Reno rally in Orlando on June 8, supporters waved poster-sized signs that said, "Buck Fu$h," and flashed "Privatize Jeb" lapel buttons.

And as Reno campaigns next to the sandstone-colored courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, a quaint town an hour west of Tallahassee, she is greeted by a woman and boy holding placards that read, "Jan stood by her man (Bill)" and "Remember Elian? Remember Waco?"

There is an awkward moment as the candidate tries to shake hands with the two protesters. "So good to see you," she says. "Thank you."

Minutes later, during a speech in front of the courthouse, Reno tries again to bridge the gap between her and her critics. "What about Elian?" she asks, rhetorically. "I made a decision that that little boy should be with his daddy and he is with his daddy," Reno says, reciting a line that typically draws applause, as it does here. "We may disagree, but we can speak our minds about what is right. One thing you'll get from me as governor: I am accountable. I come to the people and answer questions."

This is a version of other statements Reno makes on the stump when she again becomes the tough-talking prosecutor. What you see is what you get, she says. Like one of her political idols, Harry Truman, the buck stops with her.

But also like Truman, who overcame a 36 percent approval rating to win the 1948 presidential race, Reno is a long shot to beat Gov. Jeb Bush in the November general election. Polls show her to be some 20 points behind him.

The reason for the gap is simple. Though there are 3.8 million Democrats in Florida, compared with 3.5 million Republicans, a majority of the state's 1.4 million independent voters tend to vote with the more conservative Republicans. According to USF's McManus, Reno doesn't poll well with these independent voters. They shy away from her politics: Reno is pro-choice, against the death penalty and favors gay adoption and gun control. (She once advocated for gun licenses that would be as difficult to obtain as a driver's license.) "I don't think Janet Reno will receive more than 38 percent against Jeb Bush," one longtime Democratic activist predicts.

Consequently, many hard-core Democrats tend to favor Bill McBride in the Sept. 5 Democratic primary. The feeling is that the former Marine will fare better with moderate voters even though he has never held elected office. The 57-year-old is best known as the managing partner who brought Holland and Knight, Florida's largest legal firm, into national prominence before his retirement last June. McBride already has the backing of the AFL-CIO and state teacher's union, and is leading Reno in fund raising, $1.6 million to $1.1 million. (Jeb Bush has $5.8 million.)

The problem for McBride is that he's running into Reno's 90 percent name recognition -- as well as her on-the-stump charms. But McBride seems even more comfortable in front of an audience than Reno. Two weeks ago at an Hispanic Democratic dinner, McBride was as gracious as he was clever. "I know I shouldn't mention the other candidates," he said, gesturing to a table of other gubernatorial hopefuls. "But each are wonderful people, and each would be a better governor than our current governor. If you don't like me, find one of these that you do like." But, he added to the amusement of the audience, "I want you to like me a little bit more."

Because of his military background and centrist positions, McBride's crossover appeal is obvious. As one example, former Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick surprised some local political observers by agreeing to co-host a McBride fund-raiser June 26. Frederick, a longtime Democrat, switched to the GOP in 1999 after leaving office in 1992.

It will also be much more difficult for Republicans to label McBride as a liberal. Liberalism was traditionally reserved for people who advocated in favor of expansive freedoms and individual expression. But conservatives have managed to subvert its meaning to denounce those who favor bigger government-spending programs and those who (the conservatives claim) are weak on law enforcement and national defense. In the back of the minds of many Democrats is the memory of Michael Dukakis, tagged as a liberal by none other than George Bush Sr. After labeling his opponent as such, Bush Sr. went on to win the 1988 election in a landslide.

How liberal Reno is will likely be a topic of debate from now until November, with neither side scoring a rhetorical victory. If Reno's a liberal, she's a liberal in the same way as another of her political heroes, Robert Kennedy. That former attorney general and U.S. senator, whose picture was displayed in Reno's Washington office, was respected for his civil-rights record but entered the 1968 presidential race in part because he didn't approve of Eugene McCarthy's big spending programs.

"Liberal and conservative get misused all the time," says Matt Corrigan, a University of North Florida political scientist. "Is Janet Reno left of Jeb Bush? Yeah, she's way left. But it's not necessarily a fair statement to say that she's a liberal. As a former prosecutor, she's dealt with difficult cases."

Reno herself downplays the liberal angle. She emphasizes that as the nation's first female attorney general, in charge of the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service, she oversaw grant programs that allocated money to local police agencies. And despite her personal aversion to capital punishment, Reno won more death-penalty convictions than any state attorney in Florida history during her 14-year career in Dade County.

Asked by this reporter if the liberal tag is accurate, she responds, "I do not think it is. Not for someone who put 100,000 police officers on the street and has made a career of asking for the death penalty when the law provides. Some of my friends say I'm too conservative. Others say I'm too liberal. I'm sure some people want to use [the liberal tag]. The real question people should ask is: What do you mean by that?"

So I ask Reno what the word "liberal" means to her.

"I don't use it much. I prefer to judge someone's actions rather than use labels."

In campaign speeches, Reno emphasizes three main issues: building a better education system, reducing prescription drug costs and cleaning up the environment. While she can sound wonk-like and technical at times, most of her speeches are filled with passionate anecdotal references.

During a twilight speech in Seaside, the idyllic hamlet where "The Truman Show" was filmed, Reno told her audience, "I have been across Lake Okeechobee in the most beautiful dawn in the world that was mirrored in the water below. But that lake is dying now. And, unless we move quickly to take action, it will be another Lake Apopka -- deader and more difficult to revive than that much smaller lake. That is the world we're talking about. And it is a world so worth saving."

The rhetoric is one thing. Reality is another. The problem Reno faces is communicating the details of her ideas to a public that might want to know what steps, for example, the state should take to clean up Lake Okeechobee. And what about financing? How will the cash-strapped state pay for the millions an environmental clean-up will cost? Reno has yet to provide specifics on the issues she champions.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when discussing Florida's weak education system. School officials up and down the state are talking about the districts, such as Orange County, that have no money for summer school or for sports teams or for construction costs. Yet state contributions rank near the bottom, according to a national survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Florida, at $5,671 per student, ranks 41st among the 50 states, just ahead of Louisiana and Alabama, and more than $1,000 below the national average.

State spending is so low that last month the federal government penalized Florida by reducing the amount of money it is allocated from the $10.8 billion Title I program, the largest elementary- and secondary-education program in the federal government, which provides money to augment instruction for low-achieving children in high-poverty areas. The U.S. Department of Education determined that, since Florida was the only state in the country to reduce funding to schoolchildren during the 1998-99 school year, the feds would reduce their contribution from $507 million to $476 million.

State officials have responded that the federal agency miscalculated their per-pupil funding and are attempting to retrieve the lost $31.8 million. But even if that happens, education for Jeb Bush is far from a winning issue. The St. Petersburg Times has reported that, even allowing for inflation and student growth, state spending has increased less than 1 percent in Bush's first three years as governor.

While some Democrats worry that education might not be sexy enough to boost voter turnout in November, others in the party think that is precisely where the governor is weakest. When asked to name one issue Jeb Bush was most vulnerable on, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson responds, "The question is, are the public schools better now than they were four years ago?"

Bringing education even more into focus is the $262 million corporate tax break Bush signed into law in late May. The break was part of the federal stimulus package George W. Bush asked for last year. But unlike Florida, six states altered their tax codes so as not to conform to the president's economic package. Lawmakers in those states concluded that handing out tax breaks to big business at a time when state budgets are facing shortfalls wasn't a smart idea. Two of those states, Mississippi and Virginia, are controlled, like Florida, by Republican-led legislatures.

Yet Reno doesn't appear ready to seize the opening. Her ideas are limited to revamping the old stand-bys: the federal Head Start program, mentoring programs and smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third grades. At times on the stump, she is reduced to uttering platitudes like, "We need to give teachers the tools they need to succeed." She talks passionately about raising kids properly in the first three years of life, the most critical developmental years. When someone asks about children already in the school system, she responds that we need to help them, too. "Leave no child behind," Reno says, almost by rote.

She is usually quick to tell you that, at this point, she can't answer all the questions. For example, Orange and Seminole educators would like state leaders to consider a way to relieve their escalating insurance costs so more money can go to instruction and salaries. This coming fiscal year Orange county schools face a 23 percent increase in health costs. Seminole faces an 11 percent rise. Those costs come on top of price hikes the past three years for both school districts.

But when asked about school-district health costs, Reno says only that her advisors are looking into the issue.

Bill McBride, meanwhile, has issued a 62-page education plan. Though it doesn't talk about health insurance costs and has been criticized for its lack of creativity -- McBride advocates a 50-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax -- at least he has a plan. Even The Miami Herald, Reno's hometown newspaper, commented last month that by failing to talk details, Reno is quickly becoming "the candidate of style over substance."

Reno's supporters, however, believe her message connects with the public in a way some don't understand. "These people wouldn't know a position paper if it hit them in the head," says Dave Galloway, a Chattahoochee activist. "They want somebody who will look them in the eye and tell them what she's about. They don't care about TV ads. They want to see for themselves what they are buying. Janet understands that."

If Janet Reno has made a contribution thus far in 2002, it has been the fact that she is willing to take the fight directly to the Republicans, and in the process rejuvenate a Democratic base sorely in need of stroking. By touring the Panhandle and scheduling four appearances in Okaloosa County, a traditional Republican hotbed, Reno was walking into "the mouth of the tiger," as one supporter called it.

As almost anyone in Florida with a pulse realizes, this is the first statewide election since 2000, an election many Democrats believe George W. Bush stole through litigation and subterfuge. Officially, according to the Division of Elections website, Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by a mere 543 votes. That narrow victory lends credence to Reno's observation, which she repeats often, that a vote in the Panhandle is the same as one in Palm Beach or Dade County, Reno's base of support.

Reno is helping many Democrats think they can do it. "There's a lot of Democrats still smarting from 2000," says Karen McGee. "I know I am."

What better way for revenge than to knock George W. Bush's little brother out of the state house? That, in turn, would provide momentum to remove the president from the White House, completing a hat trick of sorts: all three Bushes would be one-term chief executives.

How ironic, then, that a Clinton hold-over like Reno will be the one to try to compensate for 2000. If she is to succeed, some analysts are saying she may have to tap McBride to be her running mate. He should be able to help her with moderate voters along the I-4 corridor as well as the Panhandle. The two thus far have been cordial with one another, though rumors persist that the Reno campaign was turned off by noisy McBride supporters leaving early from the Florida Democratic convention. And during the Hispanic dinner June 8, McBride left before Reno had finished her speech, which some people interpreted as a snub.

At a political seminar for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors last week, the consensus of the panel, which included Bob Poe, head of the Florida Democratic Party, and Al Cardenas, head of the Florida Republican Party, was that -- if nominated -- Reno will have to team with someone younger than herself. McBride could be that person, if he and Reno "keep their gloves off one another," political scientist McManus says. "They can't beat each other up and then become the best of friends."

For the record, McBride says Reno is a "hero"; Reno says McBride is a "fine person and a good friend."

The two together could be a formidable match for Jeb Bush and the Republicans -- what with Reno's charismatic connection with the public, McBride's business sense and centrist reputation. It's premature to speculate whether McBride would be willing to play second fiddle. But the pairing could be the kind that has Democrats rapping their own tune come election day.


More by William Dean Hinton


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