Reno Racks Up Political Mileage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The well-known woman in the driver's seat has the air-conditioning in the red pickup cranked up to arctic. A true Florida native, she never uses her turn signal when she changes lanes.

Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, may not yet officially be running for Florida governor, but she sure is driving.

Five days a week, on average, Reno shoehorns her 6-foot, 1 1/2-inch frame into the cab of her Ford Ranger and sets out to meet as many of the nearly 16 million people of this state as she can. In one recent week, with a few airplane trips thrown in to cut down on road wear-and-tear, she visited Lauderdale Lakes, Daytona Beach, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Tallahassee, Tampa and Sarasota.

"What I'm trying to figure out is how I can best serve Florida, the state where I've been born and raised," Reno, who turned 63 last month, explains from behind the wheel. "I love it. I've worked hard for it. And I don't want to see things undone."

By the end of next month, Reno says, she'll have decided whether "to fish or cut bait"--that is, whether she'll run in the Democratic primary to become her party's anointed challenger next year to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother.

At the toll plaza near Snapper Creek, there's a serendipitous reminder of Reno's No. 1 asset--her nearly universal celebrity. How many Floridians, save political junkies, would recognize Democratic gubernatorial contenders like state Rep. Lois Frankel, state Sen. Daryl Jones or former U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson? "Saturday Night Live" has yet to do a skit lampooning any of them.

Toll collector Delores Powell seems to be dozing in the 90-degree-plus afternoon swelter as Reno pulls up and hands her a dollar bill. But when Powell looks into the truck and sees who is driving, her mouth forms an "O" of astonishment and her face lights up.

"I've got Janet Reno here! I've got Janet Reno here!" she shouts to the other attendants. The young woman seems reluctant to hand Reno her 25 cents in change, wanting to prolong the magic moment.

"I love her. I think she'll win," Powell offers when asked her opinion of the former attorney general.

Reno's chief advantage, however, also is the heaviest albatross around her neck. As one of only four members of former President Clinton's Cabinet to go the full eight years, she is forever linked in people's minds to the scandal-marred administration. Thirty-seven percent of Floridians, a poll last month found, have a negative image of Reno. Utter her name to them, and it elicits unpleasant memories of the Branch Davidians; Ruby Ridge, Idaho; Clinton's controversial pardons.

In Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, the former attorney general may be the single most-hated public figure after Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. For it was on Reno's watch that U.S. authorities last year raided a Miami home to grab 6-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez, who was subsequently sent back to the island.

Mending bridges with Cuban Americans is one of the goals of her summertime wanderings. During an on-air visit to Miami's WQBA radio, Reno sipped a Cuban espresso and spoke a little Spanish but also stuck to her guns. "The boy belongs with his father," she said. Outside the studios on Southwest 8th Street, a score of demonstrators congregated, some toting portraits of Reno defaced with a swastika.

No regrets, seems to be Reno's assessment of her Washington tenure. In public office, she says, "you don't want someone who doesn't do things just to be popular but someone who calls things like he sees them and is responsible, regardless of the consequences."

Today's driving destination is Kings Point, a largely Jewish retirement complex in the Broward County community of Tamarac, about 50 minutes north of Reno's home in the Miami suburb of Kendall. She's wearing a pale lime green dress and a white linen jacket to take the edge off the air conditioner's frigid blast. Her handbag is on the floor on the passenger side.

While she once had a phalanx of Washington aides, Reno has gone to just one full-time assistant. On the road to Tamarac, she gets lost because of a glitch in the written directions she is carrying. At a Texaco station, a reporter riding with her obligingly hops out to ask the way.

A late July Mason-Dixon poll neatly encapsulated the dilemma that Florida Democratic voters face: Reno would win the party primary by a landslide, collecting almost as many votes as all other Democrats put together, but she would lose the general election by 15 percentage points to Bush.

Reno knows all about those numbers, but she isn't letting the polls make up her mind for her.

"I'm amazed at the variety of interpretations that can be drawn," she says. "So I use [polls] as tools, but not as a conclusive set of tools." Other polls, she says, indicate Gov. Bush is "vulnerable."

As Reno drives, her right hand trembles from time to time, or makes little circles in the air. Six years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She says her doctors have assured her that the ailment would not impair her ability to complete a four-year governor's term.

"I can't run like I used to, I mean physically run. But that's about the only effect on my stamina," Reno says.

After leaving her office in the Justice Department building, which faced the Capitol and Supreme Court, Reno moved back to a rambling bungalow on a 3 1/2-acre forested lot in Kendall. The single-story home is a testament to the spunk and resourcefulness of Reno's late mother, a former copy clerk at the Miami Herald.

While Reno's father, who is also deceased, worked as a Herald reporter, her mother built the house, digging the foundation, scavenging bricks from a burned building to lay the chimney. She taught the young Janet to bake cakes, play baseball and appreciate Beethoven.

Reno, the eldest of four children, now lives in the house with her 59-year-old brother, Mark, and his "lady friend." Only one room, where the computer is, is air-conditioned; the home with a mantelpiece made of driftwood is a reminder of what life in frontier Florida used to be like.

"I miss the people in Washington," Reno says. "But it's so good to be back home. Around familiar faces. And to go out on the bay, to walk in the grass in bare feet, to pull down vines and work in the woods."

Before Clinton named her to head his Justice Department, Reno was elected to four terms as Miami-Dade County's chief prosecutor. With a passion for politics that began as a young girl (she remembers racing into her parents' bedroom to tell them of Harry S. Truman's 1948 upset victory), she has lost only one political contest: a 1972 bid for the state House of Representatives.

Since coming home to Florida, Reno has bought the pickup and a 17 1/2-foot skiff--"a source of great delight." She has two fishing poles but hasn't gotten around to buying a fishing license, she says. Earlier this year, she kayaked down rivers in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.

The idea of running for the governorship came to Reno while she was speaking to student groups--and because she was shocked when a reporter hinted that it would be slumming to run for elective office after serving in the Cabinet. For Reno, politics is an honorable calling. During her travels, she says, she is finding that Floridians are upset about three things: the poor state of the schools, the threat growth represents to the environment and the controversial way George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election in Florida by a whisker.

"If all the people's votes had been counted as they intended they be counted, Al Gore would be president of the United States," Reno maintains.

Finally finding Kings Point, Reno parks outside the community center. As she enters, a band of retiree musicians breaks into "Swanee River." The hall is packed, with maybe 500 mostly elderly attendees. This is Reno country, overwhelmingly Democratic and South Florida liberal.

For 20 minutes, standing and speaking without notes, Reno talks engagingly about her vision for Florida. The whole state, she says, should be as well constructed as the house her mother built. She speaks wistfully of seeing dawn rise over Lake Okeechobee and recalls a bumper sticker her mother had as a gentle parry to those voters who might think her too old.

"Old age and treachery," it said, "will overcome youth and skill."

She gets a standing ovation, and people press around to collect her autograph on dollar bills and scraps of paper.

"When people talk her down, I say: Give me another name," says Norman Abramowitz, 76, former Democratic mayor of Tamarac. "Who else can beat the Jebster?"

About 3 p.m., Reno climbs back into the Ranger to drive home to Kendall. "I really haven't made up my mind," she says.

"I talk to people about what I could do on the outside, and whether I could be more effective just speaking out on issues, writing, being involved and showing examples." But whoever occupies the governor's chair in Tallahassee, she adds, will have much to do.

"One thing I've learned is that nothing ever changes. You think you've solved something, but people become complacent and the solution vanishes."

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