Devil in a Blue Dress

Why Janet Reno makes some men grin and other men groan

If Reno does run, she can count on Ferrell's support. Knowing how daunting political campaigns can be, Ferrell offers that he'd be willing to fill in for Reno -- as Reno, of course -- at any campaign stops she might overbook around Florida. "I could do that," he laughs.

Any predictions on how a race between Reno and Jeb Bush might go? "I think Janet will probably back over him with her pickup truck," he says. Striking a more serious tone for a moment, the registered Democrat adds, "When I had a chance to talk to her, I became that much more impressed with her, and I think if she decides to run she'll provide a great option for the voters of Florida."

And a great source of material for him, as well. "I've got a whole campaign to watch," he says. "Janet Reno running against the brother of the president. I'm guessing that is going to be a comedically charged election."

Ferrell and Reno on the SNL set: She's comedy material for him but a headache for Alex Penelas
Courtesy Saturday Night Live
Ferrell and Reno on the SNL set: She's comedy material for him but a headache for Alex Penelas

If the prospect of Janet Reno running for governor makes Will Ferrell gleeful, that same prospect must make Alex Penelas woeful. No one is a bigger loser if Reno runs than our sexy little mayor.

A Reno candidacy will guarantee that the controversy over Elian Gonzalez remains an active issue for the next eighteen months. Not only will Reno's handling of the affair be repeatedly scrutinized but all the events surrounding that tumultuous period will be replayed, including Penelas's defiant March 29, 2000, speech in front of the federal courthouse, during which he foolishly declared war on the federal government. "If their continued provocation in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and the president of the United States," Penelas shouted to the world.

That sound bite will be played again and again. But even more embarrassing for Penelas, we also will see scenes from a Nightline town-hall meeting, held nine days later, during which host Ted Koppel offered Penelas the opportunity to repeat his claims while Reno listened and watched via satellite hookup.

"Mayor Penelas," Koppel began, looking down from the stage on the mayor, who was sitting in the front row of the audience, "you got -- you got a lot of flack and a lot of publicity for what you said a couple of weeks ago. You still stand on it? In other words do you want to say to the attorney general to her face, electronically speaking, what you said -- what you said when she was not present, namely if there was violence it would be on her head and on the president's head?"

As Koppel spoke Penelas shrunk into his seat, and when he finally responded his answer was so long and convoluted that Koppel finally cut him off. "Mr. Mayor," Koppel said, "I've allowed you to go on for a long time here in the hope that you would ultimately answer my question, but you haven't yet. Would you like to say to the attorney general's face what you said behind her back?"

Penelas never did. (And I never tire of watching that humiliating exchange.)

The mayor undoubtedly hopes the entire episode will fade from memory so he can rebuild what's left of his shattered dreams. But that won't happen if Reno runs. The Elian affair, though, isn't Penelas's only problem. He also must deal with the resentment festering among Democrats over his abandonment of Al Gore last fall. Penelas refused to campaign for the vice president in the final months of the 2000 election, believing it would hurt his standing among Cuban Americans to be associated with anyone from the Clinton administration.

Penelas's absence angered many Democrats. That ire was magnified by the closeness of the presidential race in Florida and the belief that had Penelas helped Gore, the Democrats would now be in the White House. The 2002 governor's race would offer Penelas a chance to make amends with Democrats by playing a major role in helping the party's candidate defeat Jeb Bush. But if Reno is the nominee, Penelas will once again go into hiding.

He won't campaign for her. He won't even endorse her for fear of incurring the wrath of Cuban Americans. Whatever hope Penelas has of reviving his political standing within the party will be crushed.

Anyone thinking Penelas might use Reno's candidacy as an excuse to switch parties would be mistaken. The Republicans don't want him. Jeb Bush can't stand him, especially after the mayor upstaged the governor last year during the debate over Bush's One Florida initiative. Besides, as a Republican, Penelas would be just one among many Cuban Americans.

Win or lose, if Janet Reno does run for governor, she'll have the last laugh at Alex Penelas. And as we all know from watching Saturday Night Live, she's a woman who enjoys a good laugh.

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