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Move over Oprah, Phil, and Geraldo, there's a new talk-show host in town and she's playing to rave reviews. "Hello," she says kicking off her weekly, Monday-evening chatfest, "I'm Katherine Fernandez Rundle, state attorney for Dade County. Welcome to From the State Attorney's Office." In an age where just about anyone can get their own talk show -- and just about everybody has -- Rundle is in the midst of a 26-week run on Channel 35, one of Dade's public access cable stations.
Call it Rundlevision, but don't expect Stupid Felon Tricks or Top Ten Lists; this is a serious and thoughtful attempt by the prosecutor and her staff to demystify the State Attorney's Office and to educate the public as to the workings of the criminal justice system. But while Rundle A appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles last spring after her predecessor, Janet Reno, was named U.S. Attorney General -- seems sincere in this effort, the program might well be a boon to her first political campaign when she runs for election later this year.
The call-in show wasn't Rundle's idea. As originally conceived by the management of Cable TAP (Television Access Program) Channel 35, it was to be a single episode dealing exclusively with hurricane-related issues. Station managers, however, quickly realized Rundle had more to offer. "It's not very often that a regular resident of Dade County has the opportunity to speak directly with the state attorney," says Marci Crawford, a production supervisor for the cable station. "That's the best thing about this show."
The show, which broadcasts from the television studios of WLRN-TV, airs live from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Monday, and is then replayed Saturday at 1:00 p.m. and Sundays at 4:00 p.m. The premiere, which aired January 7, dealt with contractor fraud. Joining Rundle in the tiny television studio were members of the Hurricane Task Force, including the head of investigations for the Metro-Dade Police Department and the county's building director.
Subsequent shows spotlighted prison overcrowding and lien laws; episodes about domestic violence, child support, and the county's drug-court program are in the works. Rundle and her producers also plan a three-part special (February 28, March 7, and March 14) about the juvenile justice system, as well as a two-part program tentatively titled, "Anatomy of a Homicide Investigation."
Although she appeared a bit camera-shy at first, Rundle has become increasingly relaxed in her role as host. She says she's even beginning to enjoy it. "The response has been very positive," proclaims the prosecutor.
When Rundle's day-job obligations make it impossible for her to fulfill her duties as host (as they will this week, when the state attorney will be testifying before the state legislature in Tallahassee), Assistant State Attorney Ben Daniel, the office's training director and Rundle's aide in coordinating the TV program, will fill in.
Daniel is quick to dismiss any notion that Rundle may benefit politically from the dose of media exposure. "We're not using this show as a pulpit to advance any cause," he notes. "We're using this as a classroom."
Executive producer Jodie Knofsky agrees. "I think the average person doesn't understand how the system works, and all they ever read about is the negative aspects of it," explains Knofsky. "I think this show is going to present some of the positives as well as give the public a chance to speak directly to Kathy."
Ben Daniel adds that he's amazed Rundle agreed to host a TV program. "Kathy is risking a lot with this show," he points out. "She's going to be given questions that might be very difficult to answer. There's no editing or bleeping out certain things. This is live. Anything can happen."
Well, sort of. The format is fairly predictable, with Rundle introducing her guests, asking them a few questions, and then opening up the phone lines. At this point, though, things can and do get interesting. During the show about prison overcrowding, for instance, one woman called to bemoan the poor treatment her incarcerated sister is receiving. Her tale of woe was offset by a slew of callers complaining that the government spends too much money coddling inmates.
There's no way to gauge Rundle's market share among the 380,000 cable-connected households in Dade, but Channel 35's Marci Crawford reports that "the phone lines are always lit up. It's amazing. It has been very, very successful from the beginning."
Rundle can only hope her upcoming election campaign will be equally successful. (As an appointee, she must be elected this fall to serve out the rest of Janet Reno's four-year term. The Dade prosecutor's seat will be up for grabs once again in 1996.) A Cuban-American woman and a Democrat with countywide appeal, she has the enthusiastic backing of party leaders, who likely will give her whatever support is necessary, from discouraging fellow Democrats from running against her in the primary to helping her financially against whatever Republican might challenge her in November. "The State Attorney's Office is a top priority for us," says Joe Geller, the Dade County Democratic chair. "I'd be surprised if anyone decided to run against her. She's doing a terrific job. I think she's got the political support from the people to defeat any challenger."
Perhaps the most intriguing rumor to have emerged from the state attorney's race is the persistent murmuring that former acting U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen is thinking about entering the fray. Lehtinen, a Republican, did not return phone calls seeking his comment, but Rundle acknowledged that she has heard the embattled Reagan-era appointee's name bandied about as a possible foe. "I know that's been the rumor," Rundle affirms. "I have no idea if it's true. I think it may be just speculation."
A Lehtinen-Rundle race, should it come to pass, also raises the possibility of an interesting matchup between two of Dade's most successful Cuban-American women A Rundle and Lehtinen's wife, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The congresswoman is expected to face little or no opposition in her bid for a fourth term in the House, and she might well be free to campaign for her husband in the Cuban community.
Candidates will file for the state attorney's race July 18-22.