Longshot

Florida House minority leader Lois Frankel is waging an impossible campaign for governor

Lois Frankel isn't going to get to eat her pie.

She doesn't have time. Hunched over a legal pad, she's scrawling notes. "I should have prepared something to say," she says under her breath. Frankel scans the room. Chanel jackets, Nordstrom pantsuits, wide-necked Lane Bryant silk shells, a dining room full of Talbots disciples. Forty-three ladies and their manicured nails in shades aplenty fondle American flags pinned to their lapels -- the jeweled, crystal, pewter, gold-plated ones, the Gulf War antiques, those God Bless America and Protect Our Troopsbrooches. Moussed up, sprayed up, some subtly bouffanted, the women of the Lakeland chapter of the Women Business Owners re-lacquer their lips while tuxedoed boys whisk away the carcasses of their buffet lunch.

Lost in thought, Frankel stares at the pie's puddling ice-cream topping. Suddenly, she swings her right arm around the back of her chair, leans over, and whispers, "These women are probably Republican." Good guess. In this conservative patch of North Florida, GOP loyalists outnumber Democrats four to one, and no woman has served as a Polk County commissioner in 13 years. These facts don't raise one bushy, dark eyebrow of the first female Democratic Minority Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. The pro-choice, pro-gun control, über-liberal, six-term legislator willconnect with them. The Frankel for Governor campaign is converting more believers today. The politician didn't drive five hours from her West Palm Beach home to give in to the odds.

It was a long trip to the Lakeland Yacht and Country Club from her two-story, half-a-million-dollar home in Presidential Estates, a gated community near a mall and an abortion clinic. "Did you notice that place?" she asks. "There used to be protests every Saturday. Antiabortionists acting like lunatics and scaring people."

Get in a car and spend 18 hours with Lois Frankel and you'll learn that the Florida legislature's most powerful woman is scared of getting lost. Her 1999 maroon Acura is equipped with a global positioning system. "Oh my God, I was lost in Miamionce... at night. I figured that was the lasttime that was going to happen."

Frankel speaks in italics as if she thinks you won't quite take in every word. Sometimes, if Frankel has the oldies station on and gets lucky, a Supremes song will play and she'll, you know, get down. She really loves them, she says. Her memory fails trying to think of the last CD she bought. "I couldn't tell you what happened to music after 1979. But that Mariah Carey has talent." Frankel saw the pop diva's film, Glitter, a few weeks ago. "It was a great story about a woman who follows her dream to be a singer. Everybody tells her that it's impossible, and she gets beat up a little."

Lois Frankel wants to be the next governor of Florida, but everyone tells her that won't happen. She's too liberal, hasn't enough money, has no statewide name recognition, and is vying for her party's nomination against the most popular kid in school -- former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. "My campaign has nothing to do with Janet. I'm in this because I'm angry at what Gov. Jeb Bush has done to the state. Public education is a mess. He wants to take more money away from education to fix the state's budget, which is in crisis because of a tax cut he gave to the wealthy. He's allowed special interests to dictate what happens in Tallahassee. I'm sick of it. The people are sick of it."


"Look, everybody's the same, they want the same thing," she says at the Gas & Go, 15 minutes outside Lakeland. "They want security for their family, an affordable place to live, services they can depend on."

She colors her thick lips rust red while looking in the rearview mirror. "Oh my God, don't write about my lipstick. That's the stupidest thing ever to put in your story. That's like something a man would notice."

Frankel grabs a pack of Juicy Fruit gum from her console and chews her sixth stick in two hours. "You're gonna hear that a politician from South Florida can't win conservative North Florida. That's a bunch of bull."

She pulls a tan, knee-length skirt and matching jacket from her trunk and marches into the gas-station bathroom. The outfit makes her five-foot-three frame look even shorter, and she doesn't bother compensating with high heels. "Look at the power structure and the money behind politicians," she says. "I nearly fainted when I heard [Pete] Peterson had dropped out. I mean, wow! I was getting phone calls all day saying what a great thing that was for my campaign, and you know what? It was."

Within days of the September 11 attacks, former congressman and ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson said he was too shaken by the tragedy and could not focus on campaigning. Deflating Frankel's optimism, several polls taken afterward showed Reno, just days after formally announcing her candidacy, to be the Democrats' most valuable player. Frankel, attorney Bill McBride, and the race's only black candidate, Daryl Jones, looked like bench warmers.

Frankel has come -- or fallen -- a long way since last December, when she machine-gunned sound bites on shows ranging from Geraldo Live! to Meet the Press, denouncing Governor Bush and the Republican Party for delivering the presidency to George W. She became an iconic figure of the disenfranchised Florida voter and an impassioned leader to the disparaged Democrats, who hadn't felt empowered since the GOP took control of the legislature in 1996.

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