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 Miami once... at night. I figured that was the last time 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.
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."
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.
"You can't win an election today talking solely about yourself," Frankel says, defending the tactics that returned her to the House. "She started it, and I had to defend myself."
Back in her old seat, Frankel picked up where she left off, sponsoring groundbreaking legislation such as a bill that increased staffing and health standards at nursing homes. Last year, Frankel was instrumental in passing election reforms such as replacing punch-card ballots with uniform statewide ballots. And this year, she helped draft the Teacher 911 Plan, which promotes the hiring of 162,000 teachers over the next ten years.
But Frankel doesn't focus on her lengthy record in speeches. In Lakeland, she doesn't mention it at all. Adjusting her pearl necklace and buttoning her cream jacket, Frankel wrestles comically with a lapel mic. Minutes are all it takes for her to work these ladies into giggles. She tells self-deprecating stories that have nothing to do with politics. She praises her red-haired, 75-year-old mom, Dorothy. "I talk to my mother at least three times a day," Frankel tells the ladies. "She is consulted on every political move I make."
Mom-think tank Dorothy Frankel says she found politics boring before her daughter became a public official. "I just tell her some simple mom advice like the difference between right and wrong," she says. "Don't you talk to your mother about such things?"
Actually, Frankel's mother does more than that. Dorothy travels with Lois as often as possible, sometimes making the long drive to Tallahassee to watch her child deliver fiery speeches on the House floor. For Frankel's campaign, Mom will host several phone-bank fundraisers in West Palm with the help of her bridge buddies.
"I said to her, "You know, honey, you run; you go on and do it,'" Dorothy remembers. "Because you just never know. I mean, what else is she gonna do, just sit on her ass? "C'mon,' I said, "get in there.'"
Dorothy likes to show photographs of her grandson Ben, Frankel's 23-year-old son. The recent Florida State University graduate is the product of Frankel's marriage to prominent West Palm criminal attorney Richard Lubin, whom she met at Georgetown in the early 1970s. The news that Frankel wanted to get hitched shocked Dorothy, who had assumed her daughter's career ambitions might eclipse the desire for a family. But Frankel is not so simple; mindsets that say a woman can't have both a relationship and a career are laughably old school to her.
Frankel's divorce in 1984 had nothing to do with her job, she says. "People just drift apart," she says of herself and Lubin. "Look, I was a divorce lawyer for many years, and I saw the worst kind of heartbreak. So I know how bad it can get. We're still friends, and I have a lot of respect for him. He's a great attorney."
Ben, now a second lieutenant in the Marines, split time between his parents. But he was most often in his mom's care, spending his prepubescent years as a House page. "My mom and dad gave me all the attention I could have wanted," says Ben, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, stretched lazily across his mother's leather couch at her West Palm home. He's on vacation before heading to Oklahoma's Fort Sill to have his rookie butt kicked.
"Whenever I came home from college, my mom cleared her schedule. My only complaint is that she can't cook."
A cozy relationship with mom, a son in the Marines... the Frankel for Governor campaign is smelling more and more like apple pie.
She tells the Lakeland ladies, "My son Ben," she sighs. "God, I love 'im.... It's hard to think about.... Times are different today, aren't they?
"I know our thoughts are with the people who have suffered in New York and Washington. What did the people in those towers do when they figured out that there was a fire?"
They prayed, answered a couple of women.
"Yes, they prayed, but they also called their families. And what did they say to their families? "I love you.' They said, "I love you.' They called their husbands, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and told them how much they meant to them. Wouldn't it be nice if we in Tallahassee could create legislation that said the same thing: I love you? How do you say "I love you' to the elderly? You pass bills that ensure nursing homes are up to standards. How do you say "I love you' to children? You don't cut funding for programs that help disadvantaged kids. You create legislation to protect our environment so they have a beautiful place to grow up. We could call it the "I love you' bill."
Frankel has them. Two women tear up. One whispers, "Amen, amen."
Telling these ladies, flush to their gills with emotion, that she is a kinder, gentler politician, Frankel prepares to Bushwhack. He should repeal the $150 million intangibles tax cut he pushed through the legislature earlier this year, she booms. "That cut was for the rich. How many of you are rich?
"It's easy to think that education, health care, elderly care, the environment are things we can pick away at," she says. "But we cannot allow that.
"We have a budget problem; we have had a budget problem because the fiscal policies of the current governor favor only the rich few.
"There are a lot of things that go on in Tallahassee that would shock you, shock you," Frankel continues. "Jeb Bush asked for a 5 percent cut to education." A gasp from the audience. "And he gets away with it; the Republicans get away with it because nobody knows what's going on in their own capital."
Keeping it light with a little Oprah Winfrey humor, she chirps, "If men were teachers, I don't think we'd see big cuts. I think salaries would be higher!"
When the applause dies down, Frankel finishes off the Lakeland Women Business Owners.
"People ask me, "How can you be so bold as to run for governor?'" Frankel says. "Well, look, it's this simple, folks: I want to take our state back from the special interests, the good ol' boys club, the power lobbyists, the fat cats and their money that Bush has allowed to rule the roost for too long."
Bold, yes. That is Lois Frankel. And sometimes, it works. As Frankel hustles out of the country club to make her next appointment, two women offer to volunteer for her campaign. Another gives an American-flag pin to the politician. "Here," she says to Frankel, "you deserve this."
But Lisa Hickey, the group's president, is less than thrilled with Frankel. "She went across the line. Lois knew we are nonpartisan. I had asked her to talk about women's and children's issues, but she blatantly did not. I would have liked for her to inform us about what we need to know about legislation that affects us as business owners, mothers, elder caregivers. This was another discourse of what Lois Frankel doesn't like about Republicans in Tallahassee."
Inside Frankel's steel-gray home, up a short flight of stairs, are canvasses that look like shrapnel from a bombed Crayola factory.
Frankel discovered a few years ago that she could paint well enough that people asked to buy her paintings and wanted to know why she wasn't a full-time artist. "There's so much stress in my life," she says, staring at the stacks of paintings crowding the hallway. "I was just letting off some steam, and the next thing I knew, I had, like, 30 paintings. Selling them would be like turning it into a job."
As a young girl, when someone asked Frankel what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, "A politician." She's unsure how that seed was planted. "To me, it was, if someone was weak and they looked like they were about to go down, there was I!" she explains. "If there was some black kid getting picked on or something, there was I! I, like, identified with the people who weren't strong enough to fight their own fights, I guess. I knew by the time I could talk!"
Her father, Edward Frankel, a New York City lingerie salesman, began testing his daughter's political might during lengthy dinner-table debates. He helped her when, at 14 years old, she wanted to campaign door-to-door for John F. Kennedy. Yet, while Edward encouraged his daughter to broaden her understanding of the world, he yearned to keep her from it. "My father was a very protective person," she recalls. "He encouraged me to go to college and have a career, but I know he would have rather I lived a more sheltered life... preferred that I take fewer risks."
His daughter's left-wing politics confounded Edward. Was she spending too much time in the City wandering around Greenwich Village, where young minds would be easily corrupted? Eventually, her family gave up trying to sway her. Lois was just born that way, they would say. She can't help it.
After her 1970 magna cum laude graduation from Boston University with degrees in psychology and organized protest, she went to Georgetown University Law School, then, in 1978, moved to West Palm Beach to work as a public defender. Frankel eventually became one of the toughest civil and divorce lawyers in the area. After her first jury victory in 1982, the year she went into private practice, she surprised her parents with a new yellow Cadillac.
Since Frankel announced this past July that she wanted Jeb Bush's job, she's become a one-woman road-tripping force, zipping across the state to woo a crowd of voters or throw a fundraiser. Give her 20 minutes and she will find a way to sway almost any voter.
But these days, she better show up driving a bulldozer.
Strikes against a Lois Frankel victory can be summed up in two words: September 11.
Frankel called off fundraising for the rest of the month, an effort she'd begun only on September 1. She started making phone calls again on October 1 but admits, "It was like starting over. For September alone, our goal was to raise $180,000." By October 10, she reported little more than $112,000.
The Democratic Party has been Frankel's biggest contributor so far, giving her $43,000 -- the most it has afforded any of the Democratic candidates. (The Dems contributed $40,300 to McBride's $512,010 coffer and none to Reno -- because she entered the race late.) Frankel also expects to collect sizable checks from the Florida Trial Lawyers, a faithful big-money contributor to her House campaigns.
But whatever green the Democratic Party gives Frankel, it's mere pennies compared to what the group will spend by next October's primary. Although the Dems have never shelled out more than $10 million on a state race, party chairman Bob Poe says they will spend at least $20 million by the time voters cast their ballots next fall.
"Republicans outspent us four to one in the presidential election, and they thought they had everything going for them, which they obviously didn't," he says. "If Republicans feel they have this election, then that's a false sense of security that will play into our hands. We're going to match or exceed what they spend."
In terms of registered voters, Democrats have a slight edge this year. Statewide, they outnumber Republicans 44 to 40 percent. Frankel's grassroots, cross-state, road-trip campaign (her schedule shows her visiting as many as seven towns a week until January 2002) is designed to appeal to the remaining independents.
Fine-tuning this strategy are Washington consultants Mark Putnam and David Murphy, the political witch doctors behind Ruth Anne Minner's unexpected 2000 Delaware gubernatorial win and Gov. Bob Holdin's victory last year in Missouri. Putnam and Murphy will go head-to-head with Clinton consultants Frank Greer and James Carville, who are helping Reno. "Lois is dedicated to this campaign," says Murphy. "We're sending out mailings now, but it's up to her to really get out there and meet people. The Frankel for Governor campaign is an investment we're proud of." Before September 11, it might have taken Frankel less than five seconds to give a sound bite that took a chunk out of Jeb Bush. Not anymore.
"I'm not about to say anything... that, uh... might be perceived as unsupportive... name-calling isn't cool right now," she says carefully. "I wouldn't want anyone to get the impression that I am... that I was anything other than supportive right now."
A minute of silence goes by. "He's making some good speeches right now, and the person who's writing them is doing a really good job," she says. "Let's just say there are greater evils than the Republican party out there right now."
Aw, what happened to the old Lois Frankel, who appeared on CNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews September 5? On the show, Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney, Frankel's legislative nemesis, predicted that the governor's race would entertain like the Super Bowl. Frankel gave a preview that confirmed his prediction by spending most of her air-time slamming Bush.
Matthews: You call Jeb Bush a "bum."
Frankel: He's taken with his tax cuts for corporate interests and for the wealthy. He's taken our budget to near-bankruptcy. Our school boards are having to cut services, cut transportation, school supplies; they put a freeze on hiring. He's set up this private-school slush fund, moving the tax dollars into the private schools. He's... he stole money.
Matthews: Did he steal the election for his brother?
Frankel: He should have stood up for the voters of Florida and demanded that our votes be counted. We felt like he... he hid behind the skirts of [Secretary of State] Katherine Harris.
By the time Frankel passes Yeehaw Junction while driving south on Florida's Turnpike, she has yawned twice. It's almost midnight. The two hard-shell tacos she bought at a Taco Bell outside Lakeland didn't really pick her up. Her face, animated all day, is now deflating. The skin under her eyes, which do not stray from the neon yellow line leading her car home, is a little puffy. Her cell-phone earpiece is still tucked into her ear, even long after her aides have finished telling her about a fundraiser that Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth hosted at his home the previous night. "Who was there? Uh-huh, uh-huh. Well, yeah, of course," she replies. Frankel has five voice-mail messages waiting. She tells New Times to write the numbers down and dial them when she's ready. "You're my personal assistant today, because I usually have someone with me," she says.
By the time a sign to West Palm is visible, Frankel has stopped talking politics. She says she would never go back to practicing divorce law because it's too depressing. Marriage is hard, she believes. Hillary Clinton? "If you call yourself a feminist," she says, "you can't say anything bad about Hillary for staying with Bill. She got more done with him than without him."
Pulling into her driveway, she offers one of the last sticks of Juicy Fruit. She has chewed almost the entire pack. It will be nice to sleep in her own bed, she says. She might have some time tomorrow to paint or watch an old movie, activities she spent an entire day doing during the week of the attacks to escape 24-hour news coverage. She parks and throws open the door.
"I hope you had fun," she mumbles, gathering her bag and the Lakeland ladies' complimentary fern from her back seat. "Let's try it again. I'll be doing this a lot."