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

It was the high point of Frankel's career. But because term limits prohibit her from running for the House next year, the politician was forced to make a tough decision. At age 53 and the zenith of her popularity with Democrats, Frankel wasn't about to retire. Beaten miserably in a congressional campaign in 1992 -- the only time she had strayed from the legislature since 1986 -- and convinced that she could effect more change in her home state than in Washington, D.C., the politician looked to the governor's seat. Does she think she can win? Is this a desperate attempt to remain politically relevant? To position herself as a cabinet nominee? To these questions, she is elusive. When Frankel doesn't feel like giving a straight answer, she does not.

"Probably and possibly are two different things," she replies. "I wouldn't have entered unless I thought there was some advantage to it."

Frankel speaks with conviction
Sherri Cohen
Frankel speaks with conviction
Alcee Hastings creamed Frankel in an ugly 1992 battle for Congress
Alcee Hastings creamed Frankel in an ugly 1992 battle for Congress

If timing in politics is everything, Frankel could wind up with nothing.

Ron Book, power lobbyist and faithful Frankel campaign contributor, believes Frankel would be a capable governor. "But this doesn't seem to be her moment. She's angry about the [presidential] election, and I understand that. But I can't see any real policy difference between she and Janet," he says.

As Dade County state attorney from 1978 to 1993, Reno fought for social services. Frankel made her name in the legislature doing the same. For voters who want to avenge Al Gore's loss, Reno, who forged a close relationship with the ex-veep during her eight years with the Clinton administration, would seem a more likely choice.

"Two words: name recognition," adds Book. "People know Janet. Some people find Lois too abrasive. Business, special interests... you won't see them giving money to Lois in order to pay for media to get her name out."

Frankel has proudly pissed off a slew of corporate suits but none more than tobacco executives. In 1992, Frankel carted a caravan of minors around Florida and secretly videotaped as they illegally bought cigarettes. She first showed the video in the basement of a Tallahassee mansion owned by Florida's most powerful lobby, Associated Industries, a group composed of executives of the state's biggest companies, many of whom have strong ties to big tobacco. Associated Industries director John Shebel, a low-tar smoker, called Frankel "arrogant" for her "antics."

He still doesn't like her.

"The main job of a governor is to bring people together, and I can't think of a more divisive person than Lois," he says. "Florida would have hell to pay if she was elected. She's an attack dog without the kind of class that our governor exudes. My vote is going to Bush."

But Karen Woodall, the sole lobbyist who's contributed to Frankel's campaign, says the legislator is "exactly what Florida needs." Representing the National Organization for Women, Woodall took Frankel under her wing in 1986 and showed the freshman congresswoman around some of the poorest areas of the state. They visited ailing schools, nursing homes, foster care facilities, and halfway houses for children and women.

"I've watched Lois grow tremendously," says Woodall. "If they want to put her record against Reno's, Lois would blow her out of the water."

Frankel has sponsored 33 significant bills, most of which focus on government funding for children, the poor, and low-income AIDS patients. In 1990, as the majority whip on children's issues, she persuaded her mostly conservative male colleagues to pass legislation mandating school sex education to address the state's high teen-pregnancy rate.

A proponent of the state's child abuse registry in 1992, Frankel was instrumental in providing data to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, foster care homes, and adoption agencies to better protect children in their care. The following session, she helped lead the fight against Republicans who wanted to place limits on abortion rights.

Attempting to build on her success, Frankel resigned in 1992 to wage a nasty battle for Congress against Alcee Hastings, a Democrat from South Florida. By most standards, Hastings seemed an easy target. He was a black former federal judge who'd been impeached on bribery charges. Frankel was a proponent of affirmative action and thought she could appeal to his mostly black constituents. But Hastings creamed Frankel, a victory he now calls a "spirited contest."

The congressman appears to have forgotten that he called Frankel a "bitch" and "racist" and that Frankel sent out mailings calling Hastings a "criminal." Rumors circulated that she falsely told the South Florida Jewish community that Hastings was related to Louis Farrakhan.

The defeat sent Frankel back to her private civil law practice. But she couldn't stay away from politics for long. Two years later, Frankel played dirty again. This time, she climbed into the ring with former aide and friend Mimi McAndrews, who had taken Frankel's seat in 1992.

During a Democratic primary, Frankel mailed out fliers picturing a mangled car with a description of McAndrews's 1987 arrest for DUI outside a Boca Raton club. Andrews countered by sending out leaflets picturing a toddler smoking a marijuana cigarette, claiming that Frankel voted against measures to keep drugs away from children. McAndrews then accused Frankel of offering to employ her and another House Democrat if they dropped out of the primary race. Outraged, Frankel revealed that McAndrews, then age 43, had not paid back $75,000 in law school loans.

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