tallahassee hosts bush v. gore

my visit to the great 2000 election debacle

 

High-Wire Circus Act Pulls Into Tallahassee

 

* Players: Politicians, lawyers and the media are getting tangled together in Florida's capital.

 

 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- On Tuesday, this old Confederate city became host to an Olympics of political and legal jousting, with all the events being held at half a dozen venues--public and private--within three blocks of each other.

 

Back and forth attorneys walked, briefs in hand, associates in tow, past old Southern porticoes and down streets lined with oak trees and curtains of Spanish moss. They crossed paths with state legislators, Gov. Jeb Bush, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a group of South Florida voters--flown up by the Democrats to relate more stories about butterflies, dimples and woe.

 

Lawyers burned the midnight oil in the downtown offices of local firms, old hands at Florida election law. "They're right across the street from the Republicans, I understand," Democratic spokeswoman Jenny Backus said of Vice President Al Gore's legal team. "It's a small town."

 

With the 2000 presidential election passing through the looking glass--moving from counts and recounts to official judicial protests--a mood of uncertainty and expectation hung in the air. At which venue will the battle turn? Inside the modern tower that hosts the state Legislature? At the Supreme Court Building a few yards to the west? At the Leon County Courthouse just to the east?

 

"We are entering new, uncertain and controversial territory," George W. Bush point man James A. Baker III said matter-of-factly as the day began with a news conference inside the Senate Office Building.

 

Democrats later used the same rostrum, where a Senate hearing room has become an impromptu media center.

 

"We unlocked the door and let everyone in one night," explained the Senate's sergeant-at-arms, Donald Severance. "They never left. It became the press room."

 

The media show no signs of leaving soon. Near the building's entrance, one network television crew has set up a small Christmas tree next to its work space.

 

On Tuesday, the representatives of the Fourth Estate scrambled on foot, back and forth across the city's government center, covering events that unfolded one right after the other--and sometimes simultaneously.

 

Three times, from 11:12 a.m to 12:58 p.m., Gore attorneys walked the 150 feet or so from the Monroe Street offices of Berger, Davis & Singerman to file motions at the clerk's office on the second floor of the Leon County Courthouse, where their case contesting the Florida election is being heard.

 

Meanwhile, two blocks away on the lawn next to the state Supreme Court, Jackson was leading a pro-Gore rally--crafting recount catch phrases that mocked Bush. "To have a victory lap without a victory is just a jog," he said.

 

Jackson was here along with a bevy of Democratic politicians, many of whom had flown up after a week of monitoring the events in South Florida. (Their Republican counterparts were lying low, for the most part.) People and documents seemed to be descending on Tallahassee from every corner of the state--lawyers came from Seminole County, as did voters from Palm Beach County, like Linda Ehrlich of Boca Raton.

 

Ehrlich described a long struggle on election night to make her Gore vote clear on a reluctant punch card. "I was fighting with the chad. No voter should be expected to wrestle and fight with their ballot."

 

Ehrlich, who might give a deposition in one of the Gore lawsuits, soon could be followed to Tallahassee by other frustrated voters--and by thousands of ballots too--now that Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls has consented to a Gore request to have them shipped here.

 

"If we're talking about busloads of ballots," the judge asked Tuesday as he considered the question, "is the mountain going to come to us, or are we going to the mountain?"

 

As the hearing in Sauls' courtroom dragged on for two hours, there were new developments on the steps of the state Supreme Court. At 7 p.m. EST, under the glare of television spotlights, spokesman Craig Waters announced to the world that a courier truck would be arriving soon to take documents from Tallahassee to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington--briefs related to the Bush campaign's lawsuit there.

 

"We've had a lot transpire here today," Waters said.

 

While the state high court's seven justices were debating a series of election-related matters, members of the Florida Legislature were meeting in the "select joint committee on the manner of the appointment of presidential electors."

 

Republicans had called for the meeting earlier this month, when it seemed Gore might gain enough votes in the hand recounts to pull ahead of Bush. Nearly all of the 100 or so seats in the Senate hearing room were filled, mostly with out-of-town reporters. One jaded lobbyist, pacing about at the back of the room, was unimpressed.

 

"This is nothing," the lobbyist said. "We had a lot more people here for tort reform."

 

Several Democratic legislators launched into long speeches about the sanctity of the electoral process. But most of their Republican counterparts kept mum. This prompted state Sen. Tom Rossin, a Democrat, to ask: "Why are we here?"

 

Many Tallahassee residents are asking themselves the same question.

 

"People are tired of it; they want it all to go away," said Jay McGowan, a docent at the Old State Capitol, now a museum of Florida political history. "We're not a tourist town. People who come to Florida go to Tampa and Orlando. They never come to Tallahassee."

 

And residents of this government town like it that way. The Legislature meets three months out of the year. The biggest event--besides Florida State football games--is the inauguration of the governor. And even that takes place only every four years.

 

Now that the traveling political roadshow has arrived, you can't even park downtown. Half the spaces are filled by "TV trucks the size of Rhode Island," McGowan says.

 

Strands of television cables and wires circled like worms around the new State Capitol. They formed a trail leading about 150 yards from the Senate Office Building to the Florida Supreme Court, an old building whose dome has been the backdrop for many newscasts.

 

Early Tuesday, when the sun first shone on the high court's front steps, a single demonstrator stood there. Kate Pizzi, a 28-year-old software company employee, held a Gore-Lieberman sign and waved cheerfully at people driving by.

 

"It's a really nice, friendly town," Pizzi said. "I travel a lot all over the world, and this is the most friendly city I've ever been to."

 

A moment later, a car honked and a driver stuck out his head. "Go away, Gore!" he barked at Pizzi.

 

Suddenly, Tallahassee didn't seem like such a friendly place after all.