When he decided this past Monday to allow ballot recounts by hand, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks ensured that the political madness engulfing South Florida would rage on. For a few days at least, the future would be known: Lots of people would be examining lots of ballots.
One week ago, though, nothing appeared to be certain. The future was unknowable. But somehow people successfully navigated their way through one of the strangest days in memory.
On Wednesday, November 8, 2000, the day after the most surreal election in modern American history, a shadowy apparition lurks around county hall as the world awaits the presidential ballot recount. Above the passions of partisanship, the media's lust for news, and the weary movements of stressed-out bureaucrats floats a ghost, a spectral presence that is felt more than seen or heard. It is the spirit of little Elian Gonzalez.
Fresh in the minds of everyone here today is the circuslike atmosphere in Little Havana less than a year ago: the crush of the cameras bent on making news where none existed, the inflamed emotions of the participants, and the struggle of public officials to maintain order. This time, though, the future of the most powerful office in the world hangs in the balance. A major change in the recount could alter the course of human history.
Yet inexplicably, people seem relaxed.
Up on the nineteenth floor of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami, where the elections supervisor's office is located, ballots are being recounted in a glass-enclosed room guarded by two Miami-Dade police officers. Inside the soundproof room, the whirring of vote-counting machines is almost deafening. Fifteen or so people move about. In addition to those feeding ballots into the machines are representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties. Elections supervisor David Leahy is off in a corner, looking wan. Only a few reporters stand outside.
"I was surprised it wasn't more of a mob scene," comments Ellis Berger, a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel who is spending most of the day here. Occasionally a television crew marches in, films the scene for a few minutes, and then marches out. But most media wait downstairs, where a dozen vehicles representing TV and radio outlets line up along NW First Street.
Among the journalists idling on the sidewalk is Marian Romero, an independent producer for Spanish television. Romero notes that Spaniards don't really understand why the national election hinges on Florida. But many in Europe didn't understand the Elian crisis either, she shrugs. "I was watching [local] Spanish-language TV, and they were talking about the Elian factor,'" Romero muses. "I said, Oh my God, they have a name for everything here.'"
Back upstairs on the nineteenth floor, county communications director Mayco Villafaña struggles with a decision: Where should he arrange to hold the press conference announcing the recount results? In the election department's cramped lobby or elsewhere? Early in the morning, before the recount began, several dozen journalists had crammed into the area. "It looked like a sale of good overcoats at Macy's," remarks Villafaña, a sharp dresser himself.
Still he's been impressed by how smoothly everything has gone so far, and he's happy to credit the efforts of his own office. Preparing for the worst, the communications department had set up a television monitor in the lobby that provided a continuous live feed of the ballot-counting.
Although wary of "curiosity seekers," Villafaña opts to hold the press conference downstairs, outside the building. "I want the area secured," he instructs one of his staffers.That job would fall to chief of security Edward Hollander, who doesn't anticipate much trouble. "The media have behaved all day long," he reports.
In his slacks, rolled-up shirt sleeves, and tie, the middle-age Hollander looks like a poster boy for what Richard Nixon once called the Silent Majority: regular guys who get up in the morning and go to work, pay their taxes every year, and vote every four. "They just seem to want what the rest of us want," Hollander says of the reporters milling around outside the building. "For the counting and the election to be over." As he makes his rounds, Hollander's demeanor is closer to concierge than top cop. "Anything I can help you with?" he asks a reporter in search of a phone book.
Outside, near the entrance to county hall, assistant building manager Javier Suarez observes the bored clutch of reporters parked curbside. While the scene is not much to look at, in Suarez's mind it evokes memories of Camp Elian, where the world's media camped out on Miami's front porch. In fact the 67-year-old Suarez believes this amazingly close election has a lot to do with the way Al Gore's boss handled the Elian case. "It is the Cubans paying back the Clinton administration," he says disdainfully.
Suarez doesn't stop there. As he watches over the workers who are fulfilling Villafaña's decision to hold an outdoor press conference by marking off a large rectangular area, he launches into a detailed history of the Cuban exile in Miami, eventually working his way up to the recent past.
Uneasy race relations, he says, contributed to the tension during the months Miami hosted Elian, the "child of God." In Suarez's view blacks blame Cubans for taking their jobs and passing them by in the socioeconomic hierarchy. Many Anglos also are uncomfortable with the political power Cubans enjoy today. Regardless of that, he adds, Anglos certainly didn't understand the Cuban perspective on Elian, and their media coverage reflected that.
Short and stocky, his blue eyes sharp and quick behind wire-frame glasses, Suarez then digs out a well-worn voter-registration card from his wallet. He points to the initials that indicate he is a registered Democrat. "Since 1969 I was an American citizen and a Democrat," he notes. "After Elian I voted for all the Republicans down the list."
Live television has an inverse effect. The real-time world seems oddly slow by comparison. So here, as everywhere, it's later than you think. Tomorrow is Japan's today, and Adam Yamaguchi's viewers are waiting to watch Florida tow the nation to a Republican-led future.
"I don't even need to be here," he mutters. In a way he's right. Yamaguchi, who is 21 years old and lives in Los Angeles, flew to South Florida just to film the site of the Broward County ballot recount, a warehouse on SW Second Street near a yoga studio, around the corner from bail bondsmen and a 24-hour pizza joint. He works for Asahi, a television network that covers American news for the Japanese, and admits he could have trained a camera on an office park in the San Fernando Valley. Viewers wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. "In Japan, you know, they're not looking at specifics. They just want to know that they're still counting."
And they want to see that other networks' cameras are rolling, too: "It's not going to make a difference, but I just want to have them in the background."
In Yamaguchi's background a stream of camera people, blue-blazered network reporters, and sheriff's deputies in forest-green polyester wander in and out as receptionist Joan Sykes blithely licks the last drop of Dole fruit-cup syrup from a plastic spoon. "This is just a flukey thing," Sykes says, tossing the spoon and cup into a trash can under her desk and launching into a rambling tale of the real election story the stations never tell. Sykes's scoop, a description of how the warehouse works, is about as scintillating as a segment on a bread factory. But she insists it's compelling. Besides, it's an exclusive. "I picked you," she brightly tells a reporter, "because you kinda look like my daughter."
Camera crews from NBC affiliates, ABC affiliates, and CNN crowd the place. Most media people look bored. They don't speak much to one another, perhaps because they always seem to be talking into cell phones, sometimes two at once. A middle-age member of the Bush contingent is gabbing away: "There were shenanigans to the north of us and to the south of us, but I think we're okay here."
If the liberal press is worried about a Republican administration, no one shows it. Even though he's indoors, a CNN reporter keeps putting on and taking off the wraparound sunglasses that hang from his neck on a cord. Folding tables are littered with take-out food along with liter upon liter of broadcasters' ubiquitous elixir, Evian. A female TV producer offers up the remaining half of a gargantuan sandwich. There is no taker.
The detritus of democracy is all around: a precinct sign with masking tape stuffed in a yellow garbage can, postal boxes stacked with affidavits. A female deputy stands impassive at the door to the glassed-in room where ballots are being recounted. Her arms fold across her chest like those of the doorman at an exclusive nightclub.
Across the room 41-year-old temporary Broward County employee Tony Davis slumps in a metal folding chair. "No, I didn't vote," he says, not looking up. "Just not much of a voter." Scanning the day's newspapers, he admits in hindsight he wishes he had cast a ballot. "You kinda feel like, one vote, what's it gonna matter? I guess if everyone thought that way...." Davis will return to his usual maintenance job when he's done here. He dislikes George W. Bush: "He brought back the death penalty in Texas. We'd be into capital punishment." His co-workers agree. Few of them voted.
Yamaguchi didn't vote either. He had to leave California and didn't remember to get an absentee ballot in time. "I kinda got screwed," he says, consoling himself with the fact that Gore won his home state anyway. As the evening wears on, he grows repentant and then angry. "I'm a total Gore supporter. I hate Bush. Whatever hell and havoc he wreaks on this country, it's our fault."
Just before 6:00 p.m. Broward supervisor of elections Jane Carroll appears, and Yamaguchi hurries over to join the reporting horde. In the bright white lights of the cameras, Carroll's face looks pale and glowing, a full moon. Her lips are painted a patriotic crimson that appears inexplicably Republican. She reports the results of the recount, and nothing has changed, really. A young Bush supporter in white shirt and tie holds up a small disposable camera to snap a picture of the media taking pictures of Carroll. "For posterity," he drawls.
Meanwhile his Democrat counterpart ambles about in a gold Gore 2000 shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, looking dejected and collegiate, like he's just pulled an all-nighter only to find out the exam was canceled.
Outside it's déjà vu. Through the window of a CNN satellite van, the reporter's face reappears, this time on a flickering twelve-inch monitor. Her voice is slightly delayed, but it doesn't matter. In Broward, at least, no one can hear her.
At 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday the Palm Beach County government center is the only place that matters in American politics. Two television sets in the spacious lobby are tuned to CNN and MSNBC. Sheriff's deputies watch the media swarm with slack-jawed interest while a few protestors outside raise signs: "Recount," reads one. "Watch the absentee ballots," warns another.
Twelve television crews pace restlessly. Their cameramen tape microphones to a podium where Palm Beach County supervisor of elections Theresa LePore is slated to appear. It was she who designed the now-infamous "butterfly ballot" that has become the center of the Gore-Bush maelstrom.
Everyone here wears a uniform. TV reporters are slicked up and manicured, and their crews are dressed in scruffy T-shirts and jeans. Dozens of print reporters fall into a fashion purgatory, universally low-tech, carrying notepads and ballpoint pens; men wear loosened ties and women carry big shoulder bags. Their photographers look like refugees from a homeless shelter.
Watching the watchers is veteran political consultant Linda Hennessee, the point woman for U.S. Congressional candidate Elaine Bloom. Sitting cross-legged on a bench outside the supervisor's office, she wears gray trousers and a jacket, both wrinkled. She holds back a cough and describes LePore. "Arrogant," she mutters. "Arrogant, disorganized.... She should come out here and talk to people; that's her job. If there's a problem, she should admit it. I'm worried about her ability to be forthright."
Then the Washington Post's emissary arrives. Sue Anne Pressley, the paper's Miami bureau chief, moseys up and introduces herself to Hennessee. After asking some questions, she makes a startling admission. "So I don't usually do this," she shrugs and smiles disarmingly. "I usually do pets and children." Hennessee doesn't say much until both Pressley and a Sun-Sentinel reporter leave. Then she gets on a cell phone and tells someone she's advising Bloom to file a court challenge if the recount shows her to be within a few hundred votes of her Republican opponent, Clay Shaw. "If it's more than 1000 or something like that, we won't challenge it," Hennessee says of her candidate's second-place finish after a recount. "But this is ridiculous" -- she nods at the swarm of confused activity -- "and if it's within a few hundred, we will definitely go to court."
Later in the day a television news reporter works his way through repeated takes in front of a camera, one for a station in San Diego, another for a New York channel, and a third for Bloomberg News. He's tiny, only about five feet tall, so his producer has given him a suitcase on which to stand.
A young man clad in blue jeans powders and repowders the reporter between feeds. As soon as the camera light blinks on, the pintsize reporter greets viewers in various cities in stentorian tones. He keeps his hand in his pocket to appear casual. Just before the New York feed, he calls his coordinator, who is standing beside the cameraman. "Hey! Is it Cathleen or Christine in New York?"
After a hissed reply, he goes live. "Thanks Christine," he says with a smile, "as you can see behind me, here in Palm Beach County tonight...."
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To his left two other newscasters stand in front of their crews. "How much time to the feed?" one calls. When not on camera, they rehearse like actors, practicing their lines over and over. They check and recheck their hair; they check and recheck their ties.
A few minutes later the miniature reporter gets on the phone. "We've booked all the 1:40 seats to Tallahassee," he tells someone. The person on the other end of the line asks a question. "Oh, I slept a couple hours on the plane, but no, not since Tuesday morning."
A cameraman walks by, talking with a companion. "I filed a $10,000 expense report," he says, "and they never even blinked."
Theresa LePore takes a break from the recount and heads for the TV lights. Almost 20,000 of her butterfly ballots were double-punched and discarded, she says. She'll never design such a ballot again. "Hindsight," she observes, "is 20/20."