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After spending eight years in Washington as U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno was telling everyone who would listen that her only plans were to kayak Florida's waterways and travel around the nation in her pickup truck.
And then, two months ago, her friend Hugh A. Westbrook called and invited her to dinner. Westbrook, CEO of Vitas Healthcare Corporation and a major Democratic Party fundraiser, had a simple message for Reno: She was the party's best shot at beating Jeb Bush in next year's race for governor.
"I think Janet can win," Westbrook says in explaining why he has encouraged her to run. "She has a vision of Florida that I agree with. I've known Janet for over ten years and believe she knows what is right for Florida. She loves Florida very much."
Earlier Westbrook had tried to persuade Reno to return to Florida and run for the U.S. Senate against Republican Connie Mack in 1994, but she declined, telling him there were things she still wanted to accomplish in Washington. This time around Reno was more receptive. "I would say that when we talked about her running for governor, there was a mutual interest in exploring the possibilities," Westbrook says. "She was not talked into anything by anyone. She was already thinking about it without me having to say anything."
Westbrook reports that Reno is disturbed by the direction Florida is heading. "I think she expected to see a different Florida than the one she saw when she came home," he observes. Asked to specify, he replies, "You'll have to ask Janet."
Typically restrained, Reno declines to evaluate Bush's performance, only saying she would take the governor's record into consideration as she decides "who can best lead the Florida I love." As she elaborates, she sounds every bit the candidate who already has decided on her major campaign issues. "I want to examine how we provide for our children and give them a strong future," she says, "how we can give support and positive opportunities to our elderly citizens, how we can use the natural resources of our state in the wisest way possible, how we can make sure people get to work without having to struggle through an hour and a half of traffic."
Reno's friends say that despite her publicly expressed wish to retire from public life, she harbors a burning desire to remain in the political fray. In many ways her greatest political gift may be her ability to seem outwardly detached and ambivalent about her future while privately calculating all the angles. But make no mistake, say those who know her, she is both ambitious and tenacious.
In the two months since Westbrook broached the idea of Reno running, the 61-year-old Florida native has quietly consulted with a tight circle of friends and family. Just two weeks ago I had asked Bob Poe, state chairman of the Democratic Party, if he was aware Reno was considering a run for governor. He expressed shock. "Really?" he said. "That's amazing. I hadn't heard that."
Reno's supporters already have begun polling registered voters to test her viability as a candidate. "There has been some polling done," Reno acknowledges. "I think the results are not clear enough yet."
If the preliminary results hadn't been favorable, Reno obviously wouldn't have gone public with her decision to consider entering the race. Neither Reno nor Westbrook would reveal who was paying for the polling. "I can't comment on any polling or any of the work people are doing on that," Westbrook says.
Polling is expected to be crucial in one particular area: measuring the public's perception of Reno as someone who suffers from Parkinson's disease. Five years Reno was diagnosed with the debilitating neurological disorder, which often causes her hands and body to shake visibly. Reno, however, insists her health should not be a concern for voters. "If I could come through eight years as attorney general under tremendous workloads and can come home and kayak," she says, "I ought to be prepared for anything the job of governor would bring."
In addition to name recognition, Reno's other advantage as a candidate would be her ability to raise money. "I'm sure it will be an expensive campaign," Reno acknowledges. But like Hillary Clinton during her Senate campaign, Reno would be able to recruit contributors from coast to coast. Imagine, for instance, Michael J. Fox, the actor who also has Parkinson's, hosting a fundraiser for her in Los Angeles. Westbrook, the controversial founder of the nation's largest for-profit hospice company, would also be instrumental; he has raised tens of millions of dollars for the Democratic Party over the years.
If Reno does decide to run, she will need all the money she can lay her hands on for what will certainly be a difficult race. Historically any Democrat who hopes to win statewide office needs to capture 25 to 30 percent of the Cuban-American vote, but in the wake of Elian Gonzalez, Reno will be lucky to claim 15 to 20 percent. She'll need to make up for those lost votes elsewhere. One pivotal opportunity: energizing and increasing turnout in the black community. The selection of a running mate will be of paramount importance as well, as she will almost certainly need to pick someone who can garner swing votes along the so-called I-4 corridor between Tampa and Jacksonville.
"It would be very easy to underestimate Janet Reno as a candidate for governor, but that would be a mistake," says Rob Schroth, a prominent political consultant and pollster based in Washington. "Any strong law-and-order female Democrat would be a formidable candidate against the current governor, especially one with access to money and who has high favorability ratings. She has instant, huge-name recognition. We know she has a base in South Florida. We know she is popular among women. The question is, Can she attract the vote of suburban Democrats and independents along the I-4 corridor, who have become the key to victory in recent years?"
Reno is particularly appealing to Florida's Democrats, who have been floundering without a standard-bearer. "The blush is off the Bush rose," Schroth says. "But without a clear Democratic alternative, he stood to win by default. However, the entrance of a dramatic candidate into the race would make it immediately competitive. It would certainly be a war."