Minority Madness

While the world roosts outside the state capitol in Tallahassee, Democrats huddle on the third floor just trying to cope. Roughly 30 representatives, most hailing from South Florida, sit around a long table in what they call the caucus room, the largest space in the House minority's suite of offices. Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach leads the meeting. Behind her hang the American and Floridian flags, and a sign running the length of the wall, which reads, "WE'RE ON YOUR SIDE." Unfortunately for the Democrats, the people who really matter in Tallahassee -- Republicans -- aren't on their side. So outnumbered 77 to 43, they do what comes naturally for the powerless. They complain.

"I really don't want us to become victims," Rep. Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, of Miami, cautions, "or to start thinking like victims about what is happening to us."

Another member chimes in: "They are talking down to us. We're not idiots!"

"Why are we going to whine?" yells another. "We can't be victims!"

"I know that the Republicans aren't going to call us in for anything," says Roger Wishner, a freshman representing Sunrise and Plantation, "even though we have years of experience."

Frankel tries to console them by mentioning that she's planning a retreat so they can all get away from Tallahassee for a day or two. Dan Gelber, a freshman member from Miami Beach, jokes, "I'm sure there is a support group somewhere that can help these traumatized people."

"I hear your frustration -- I feel totally useless up here," announces Ron Greenstein, a second-termer from Coconut Creek. "This is the type of bonding we need, and I think mentoring is a good idea."

Welcome to Democrats Anonymous. Members aren't dealing with a new problem, just its most recent manifestation. The trouble began four years ago, when Republicans seized control of the legislature. Then in 1998 Jeb Bush was elected governor, making Florida the first Southern state ruled by GOP legislative and executive branches since Reconstruction.

Embattled House Democrats have watched in dismay as their opponents have deep-sixed affirmative action, besieged abortion rights, attacked death-row inmates' right to appeal, and slashed social programs. They also have been helpless in the face of corporate tax breaks, Big Sugar's authoring of environmental laws, and passage of property legislation that has tickled developers pink.

On this day they are dealing with perhaps their most significant whipping ever: House Speaker Tom Feeney, Jeb Bush's 1994 running mate, is planning to strong-arm George W. Bush into the presidency by naming a GOP slate of electors. Frankel calls it the "ultimate partisan act." This isn't a resolution, the Democrats complain, it's a coronation. They also call it arrogant, illegal, and a robbery of the people's right to have their votes count.

On December 12 the Republican-led special session passed Feeney's measure, but it was incidental to history. The U.S. Supreme Court had trumped the legislature by ending the manual recount of votes, making Bush president by default. But in the days leading up to the special session, South Florida's 24 beleaguered Democrats (including 11 Broward reps, 5 from Palm Beach, and 8 from Miami-Dade), who make up more than half of the minority, followed a lemming-like path to failure.

Five days in their midst provided a peek behind the walls of history, where the Democratic minority did more than just act as the loyal opposition. It cried for help.

In Tallahassee crucial information often filters down to the Democrats through offhand remarks and slips of the lip. At the whim of the majority, minority members also often find out what's going on in the legislature by watching television. "We're just waiting to be called to special session," says Greenstein. "We get so much confusion. We get 50 different rumors and about 100 different stories, and I caused about 10 of them."

A big, graying, 49-year-old former air traffic controller dressed in a blue suit, Greenstein is the minority's jester. A moderate Democrat who is liberal on social issues but pro-business and fiscally conservative, he's a master glad-hander and snappy small-talker. He does his best to keep the wheels turning and sometimes votes with the Republicans on financial matters. "Up here, it's like kids in a sandbox," he says. "You have to learn to play well with others or you get thrown out."

Greenstein says his late mother, Tillie, likely wouldn't be proud of him for abandoning his FDR-liberal roots. Tillie, who died two years ago at the age of 82, was known as the "queen of Sunrise Lakes." She was president of the West Broward Democratic Club and controlled the votes of about 10,000 elderly condo dwellers. She also helped her boy win a commission seat in Coconut Creek in 1987. Even before that victory, he'd discovered what it felt like to be flattened by a Republican: He was one of more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers fired by President Reagan in 1981.  

Greenstein's motto through the presidential controversy is "shame on us." He learned the value of shame from the best. "I really miss her now," Greenstein says of his mother. "In this situation right now, she would be doing my mother's favorite thing, making me feel guilty. She was the perfect Jewish mother. She would make everybody feel guilty. She'd look at you with puppy-dog eyes and say, "Why are you doing this?' My mother would have no fear to go right into Feeney's office. She'd raise her little finger and shake it slightly and say, "You need to listen to the people.'"

Sadly for Greenstein and his colleagues, Tillie isn't here to set Feeney straight. The big rumor this morning is that the Republicans will call a special session to certify the slate of Bush electors. It would be an extraordinary undertaking, the first time in more than a century that a state house has stamped its own presidential choice. Just the day before, after Judge N. Sanders Sauls slam-dunked the Gore case, the speaker said he was "chilling out" on the idea. But now, with the Florida Supreme Court considering the matter, it appears things have changed.

During a morning training session for new members, Feeney instructs the House majority leader, Mike Fasano, to tell everyone to cancel Friday travel plans. Fasano is cagey; he says it has something to do with training. But almost everyone sees through that charade; Feeney, they know, is going to call the special session.

"Am I on the side that is going to be run over? Yeah," Greenstein says. "If the train says Pennsylvania Railroad on it, you would probably see it indented in my body."

At 1 p.m., Greenstein exerts his power like the rest of the Democrats -- he joins roughly 2500 other people filling the Capitol plaza, many armed with Democratic Party-made signs bearing Greenstein's favorite word: "Shame." Party operatives from around the nation, along with the AFL-CIO, organized the rally and most House Democrats stand together on the Old Capitol steps, helping to lead it. Frankel speaks, along with Jesse Jackson, NOW president Patricia Ireland, and other leaders. "This isn't about protecting electors -- it is about a protection of George Bush electors!" Frankel exclaims.

When it's over, Rep. Ken Gottlieb of Hollywood returns to the caucus room on the third floor. Members spend a lot of time there. They gather for meetings a couple of times a day; food is provided courtesy of the AFL-CIO, starting with breakfast in the morning and continuing with sandwiches and pizza in the afternoon. The Democrats and labor are in this together.

Because the regular legislative session won't start until March, none of the House members have permanent offices. They work without state-issue computers and telephones. (Though most have personal cell phones.) The caucus room is their hangout as well as a place for official meetings and strategy sessions. When Gottlieb walks in, an aide hands him a message that reads, "Call Al Gore, 202-456-7124." Gottlieb, who is a real estate lawyer, goes into a little side office and dials the number. A short conversation ensues.

"He just thanked me for the work I was doing over here," a beaming Gottlieb explains after hanging up. "He also wanted to know what was happening, and I told him it seemed we would be going to session Friday or Monday. I got a call from the vice president. It was outstanding to hear from him."

Gottlieb, age 37, doesn't get many messages like that one. He's not a high-profile guy. He's thoughtful and quiet by nature, a short and slight family man who normally speaks in a methodical monotone. It seems to pain him to raise his voice. Dan Gelber, a tall, bespectacled lawyer who is the son of former Miami Beach mayor Seymour Gelber, may have put it best when he remarked that Gottlieb is an "underwhelming" guy. The two have become friends while formulating legal arguments against the session.

They believe they have a great case against the Republicans, who are basing their action on a federal law that the legislature may appoint electors if a choice isn't made on election day. The measure states electors are to be chosen "in such a manner as the legislature of such state may direct." The Republicans also rely on an obscure 1892 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court gave legislatures absolute power to choose electors. Gottlieb counters the Republicans are dangerously misconstruing the law and overestimating their power. The legislature, he argues, has already determined that voters should choose electors. Feeney wants to ignore state law and ordain the GOP candidate as president, he says.  

Frankel, meanwhile, is waging a parallel campaign; this one is televised. Short, black-haired, and fiercely liberal, the New York-born lawyer from West Palm Beach wears little makeup and puts on no discernible airs. She displays the rare talent of seeming pleasant and nonthreatening while making seething accusations against her opponents. She is the ideological polar opposite of the ultraconservative Feeney. But like Feeney, she's tough and pugnacious. She seems to relish staring into the cameras and talking about how the Bush campaign is pulling the strings. The charge isn't baseless (Bush campaign leader James Baker first raised the idea of a special session and Jeb Bush openly declared that he'd support it), but she's coming close to critically offending the Republicans, whom she must work with for at least the next two years.

"I am on the edge right now," she says. "I am truthful, yet you have to be diplomatic. I am right on the edge of insulting my friends and colleagues. But who is going to take the lead? Nobody. I have to take the lead."

Considering that 52-year-old Frankel had never been on national television before, she's taken on the role as frontwoman with remarkable ease. (She, too, got a call from Gore, who said she was great on TV.) Now she's on a first-name basis with Tim Russert, Larry King, and, of all people, Oliver North.

Frankel and other members of the House minority keep in close contact with the Gore camp through Karl Koch, a party leader. Koch has delivered "talking points" on the Gore court cases. And Gelber is staying in contact with several Gore attorneys, including Kendall Coffey, whom Gelber once worked for at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

At 5 p.m., long after the rally is finished, a dozen or so Democrats straggle into the caucus room for a scheduled meeting. "Has anybody seen the rest of our people?" Frankel asks.

"The Republicans are out there picking them off one by one," says Greenstein. "That's why this meeting hasn't started yet."

The proceedings are interrupted when Senate President John McKay and Feeney appear on the television overhead, which is tuned to MSNBC and never turned off. Greenstein, who holds the remote control, shushes everyone and turns the volume up to full blast so everyone can hear the Republican leaders announce there will, indeed, be a special session. Frankel shakes her head. "Well, so much for deliberation."

As McKay and Feeney drone on about their constitutional duty and doing this for the people of Florida, the Democrats cackle and jeer. Frankel, who has been shaking her head in disbelief, walks out. "I'm going downstairs and respond to this," she says. In a matter of minutes, Frankel replaces the Republicans on all the cable-news networks. Her speech, as usual, is tough and accusatory, and will be quoted in nearly every newspaper in the United States the next morning. "Sadly," she says in her best sound byte, "I have to say this is orchestrated, and the only thing missing from this proclamation is the postmark from Austin, Texas."

Frankel soon returns to the caucus room, where the members give her a standing ovation. Greenstein pulls a five dollar bill out of his wallet and waves it in the air. "Here's the first donation to the Lois New Coat Fund," he jokes, adding that Frankel has been wearing the same navy suit coat for a few days now. Lois doesn't laugh much.

"Great speech," Greenstein says, his countenance sobering.

"This is an out-of-body experience," Frankel announces to her Democratic comrades, who now fill the room. "I know you didn't sign up for this, and I didn't either. We are under the world's spotlight now. Keep your cool. No name-calling. I don't care what you think about all these Republicans, we are not going to personalize any of this."

Later that night, after her cohorts have gone home, Frankel stands outside the capitol bathed in television lights. She relentlessly repeats her message until about 10 p.m., then awakens at 6 a.m. to appear on Good Morning America and The Early Show.

Despite her omnipresence on television, Frankel doesn't dominate the morning news. Rather it's the Florida Supreme Court, where the Bush and Gore legal teams argue their respective cases. After watching the deliberations on television, Frankel, in her office, says, "I have a good feeling about this one."

One of three Democratic leaders with an office in the same suite as the caucus room, Frankel has reason to like the courts -- they are the only place her Party has won substantial victories during the past two years. Judges have struck down Republican-sponsored bills dealing with abortion, the death penalty, and school vouchers. She peers out the window of her office, which overlooks the Florida Supreme Court building. "The story is over there," she says. "If Gore doesn't get this recount, none of this matters. If they get a recount, then all of a sudden this Legislature starts getting very dangerous."  

Frankel then stands up over her laptop computer, which shows dozens of unopened e-mails from around the nation. One, from Karen Larsen in Baltimore, says, "You go, girl." Another reads, "You really looked very silly." Some plead with her to "stop whining" and for Al Gore to concede. One is titled, "Dear Beleaguered Legislator, Take Courage, from Minnesota."

As Frankel continues looking through her mail, Rep. Matt Meadows of Fort Lauderdale sits down at the caucus-room table and describes his efforts to work with the majority. He says he met two days ago with Feeney to talk about committee assignments, which are made by the speaker. He has no idea if the House leader will accede to his requests. Meadows didn't bring up the election, but it's on his mind. His constituency is made up primarily of blacks, who were disenfranchised more than any other group by faulty voting machines. "So many decided to participate in the process and as a result of that, we had this kind of tragedy," he says. "Now we have to go to the courts. We have to have a special session. It's kind of like a kick in the teeth."

Rep. Eleanor Sobel, of Hollywood, walks into the caucus room. She wears thick makeup, very dark around the eyes, and around her neck a scarf that is strangely reminiscent of World War I fighter pilots' couture. She brings up the Broward County recount. "I was in that counting room and do you know that Bob Dole was in there intimidating those counters?" she says. "He was giving them the evil eye. It was disgusting, that bastard -- excuse my French."

It's 5 p.m., time for another caucus meeting. Roughly 30 reps show up and this time, Rep. Sally Heymann of North Miami Beach begins the proceedings. Heymann's job is to give both new and old members tips on everything from expense reports to the best way to get a bill heard by committees. One of her first bits of advice: Turn off cell phones and pagers before meetings.

Two minutes later Sobel's cell phone rings, disrupting Heymann's lesson. Everyone laughs except for Sobel, who is seemingly oblivious to her faux pas. She answers and loudly says, "Hello." Other reps look at each other with bemused astonishment. Finally she hangs up and the meeting resumes. A couple of minutes later, Sobel's phone goes off again. The room again erupts in laughter. Sobel answers and disrupts the meeting. Greenstein, still laughing, leans over to whisper something to Gottlieb. Sobel ends the call and, on cue, her phone sounds yet again.

"Ken?" Sobel says, peering across the room.

It's Gottlieb, who was put up to it by Greenstein. Everyone laughs except Sobel, who still doesn't seem to get it.

Finally Frankel walks in and takes over. She hasn't decided who will speak on the floor during the debate, which is scheduled for Tuesday, but asks everyone to start working on a speech. Then Rep. Irv Slosberg, a freshman from Boca Raton who looks a little like actor Roberto Benigni, asks to speak. Slosberg is a millionaire who sells women's purses. He reads a missive from a Century Village dweller named Rose, who calls Slosberg a "mensch." Some members chuckle. "I feel this is a very important letter," he concludes.

"You all have stories, you have points of view, and I think it's very important that we hear them," says Frankel magnanimously.

When the meeting is over, Sobel approaches Gottlieb. "Why did you call me?" she asks.

With incredulity, Gottlieb says: "Because your phone kept going off during the meeting. It was a joke."

"Oh, I thought it was to get Sally to quit talking," Sobel says. "She was really talking a lot."

Gottlieb shakes his head and only says, "No."

At about 9 a.m. the meeting begins. As they munch on breakfast, the reps go around the table telling their stories. "This will be a defining moment for this legislature," Gelber says when his turn arrives. "We may do wonderful things in the next ten years, but we will always be remembered as the legislature that flouted the electoral system."

Slosberg re-reads his mensch letter.  

"Bottom line is we need to count the votes," Rep. Roger Wishner says. "The Florida Legislature is moving to take over the election."

Chris Smith, in his second term out of Fort Lauderdale, compares naming Bush electors to passage of laws that restricted black voting. "This legislature is carrying on a fine tradition of racist legislation in the South," Smith says.

Greenstein stands and, after a brief talk about legal issues, he ends with a hushed and indignant, "Shame on us."

Anne Gannon, a freshman from Delray Beach, weeps at the table. She says she spent 17 years in Mississippi witnessing racism. "My mentor Lois [Frankel] told me that she had a little saying that "no matter what, we should do no harm up here,'" Gannon concludes. "And I do believe this is doing harm."

Bob Henriquez, of Tampa, tries to console the group. "Let's do the best we can," he says. "No matter what happens, we're all winners in this room."

As the meeting comes to a close, Gottlieb smiles across the room and says, "I need to say this ... Power to the people! POWER TO THE PEOPLE!"

At 10 a.m. members gather on the House floor. Democrats are relegated to the back rows. Feeney, a curly-haired man raised in Philadelphia, steps onto his towering podium and whacks it with a large wooden mallet. Soon the resolution naming the George W. Bush electors -- Feeney happens to be one of them -- is read. After a smattering of debate over procedural matters, the meeting ends, and Republican Rep. Johnnie Byrd, from Plant City, exclaims, "It's been a great day in the State of Florida."

On Monday, a select committee will meet to vote on the resolution and then Tuesday the House will cast ballots. After several members are mobbed by reporters, the Democrats return upstairs to the caucus room. "Somebody give me a cigarette," Gottlieb says. There's little reaction and Gottlieb, who doesn't smoke, wonders if anybody got his joke.

The Florida Supreme Court is expected to rule at any time. If the judges side with Gore, it means business for the legislature. "If Gore wins, come back here next week with your hardhats on," Frankel tells her colleagues, "because it's gonna be fierce."

Henriquez then offers his own words to the wise: "Don't do anything on the floor that you don't want to see in the newspapers or on TV. There are cameras everywhere and sometimes they'll pan to a member picking their nose. Also don't fall asleep. If you get drowsy, leave the room."

Later that night the Florida Supreme Court rules in Gore's favor, ordering a hand count of thousands of ballots. "Let them count. Let them be done by Tuesday," an elated Frankel says after hearing the news. "Johnnie Byrd was right, it is a great day for Florida." Bush immediately appeals the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But later that night on CNN, James Baker declines to promise to abide by the top court's ruling. Instead he notes the Florida Legislature is "entitled to take whatever action the Constitution provides for them."

Time to break out the hardhats.

On Monday morning the AFL-CIO has footed the bill for a hot breakfast of eggs and sausage and the like. As the same core 30 or so Democrats eat, some members joke that it's the "Cheney breakfast." Either they were undaunted by the bad news over the weekend (the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount and decided to review the case), or they just didn't want to talk about it.

"This is like a soap opera, where the authors keep changing the story line," Greenstein says. "As the Democracy Turns. I don't think either Gore or Bush can ever politically come back from this. It's a shame. Whoever wins is a one-termer and whoever loses is finished. I'm afraid we've done damage to the public. It would be nice to end it."

Today is committee day. Representing the Democrats on the seven-member slate are Gottlieb; Annie Betancourt, a Cuban American from Miami; and Dwight Stansel, from Live Oak. They are outnumbered 4-3 by Republicans, and so have no chance of successfully stopping the special session. Feeney's choice of Stansel is interesting -- he is a blue-dog Democrat from a district that voted overwhelmingly against Gore. Stansel supports school prayer and opposes abortion rights, affirmative action, and gun control. Nobody is certain which way the Live Oak rep will go; Stansel says he's undecided.

After breakfast Gottlieb walks across the capitol to the committee room. "I'm nervous now," he says. "I don't want to mess up."

"This is a script," comments Sobel, who is walking with Gottlieb. "It's a done deal. We're not going to effect any change. The only hope we have is in the Supreme Court and now that we're sending [Gore lawyer David] Boies up there, I think we can win. If Boies can break up Microsoft, he can save our country."  

Sobel peers at Gottlieb and changes the subject. "You look like a lawyer in your black suit," she declares.

"I am one," Gottlieb says.

"I don't mean anything by it ... I was thinking that lawyers talk too much," she says. "Like Sally's a lawyer."

"You have your cell phone turned off, don't you?" Gottlieb says.

"Don't worry," Sobel mutters, falling behind.

Inside the committee room, which includes a gallery for the public and a kind of stage for the committee, there are a few dozen citizens who have come to testify. Heymann mistakenly introduces Sobel as "Lois Frankel," but nobody seems to notice. A group of 20 Democratic reps has come to the meeting to show support for Gottlieb, Betancourt, and Stansel.

The meeting begins with expert testimony from Michael Paulsen, a University of Minnesota law professor, who takes the Republican side.

The legislature, Paulsen tells the committee, is the "ultimate judge" in deciding the electors. He says they have "exclusive and ultimate power" above and beyond Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. The manual recount, Paulsen opines, is a "borderline crazy process." The message is clear: The Florida Supreme Court fouled up, the recount process is a sham, and the legislature's duty is to ensure that the true winner, George W. Bush, is elected president.

Then a surprise expert is introduced: Asa Hutchinson, the Republican congressman from Arkansas, who was invited by Feeney to speak. Hutchinson favors certifying the Bush electors, but his mere presence is more important than anything he says. He adds a true partisan flair to the proceedings. Hutchinson was last in the national spotlight when he served as one of the prosecutors of President Clinton during impeachment proceedings. Through him, Monica and Chad have finally come together.

Mercifully the committee meeting begins to draw to a close after six hours. To break the monotony, some of the Democrats decide to count the number of times Gottlieb says "power to the people" during his speech. The unofficial count is seven.

Stansel jumps the sinking Democratic ship and votes for the resolution, giving the Republicans a 5-2 victory. Reporters flock around the Live Oak rep after the meeting. Score another one for Feeney.

Later in the afternoon, back in the caucus room, Greenstein tries to talk about other things as Frankel prepares to start a meeting. "I'm on a rush today," he announces. "My stock portfolio is no longer more than 25 percent down."

Greenstein and Henriquez decide the over-under line on tomorrow's vote is 79. It will go 79 to 41, they predict, with Stansel and Will Kendrick, another blue-dog Democrat from a heavily Republican district in Tallahassee, switching sides.

Suddenly Rep. Stacy Ritter, of Tamarac, enters the room. The young, brown-haired politico has been on her honeymoon, conspicuously absent during the entire drama. "She came here to get some rest," Greenstein quips.

As afternoon turns into evening, Frankel bangs on the table and announces that she's decided that every member who wants to speak on the floor will be allowed to do so. "You are going to bring tears to the eyes of the Republicans for their being so evil," she says. She notes that none of them are going to change history, but says the minority has nevertheless decided to offer an amendment to strike the Republican resolution. The move is doomed to failure, but it is all she can do.

Suddenly Feeney appears on the television. "That's live!" someone yells and they quiet down and turn up the volume. "When it was all said and done we had a five to two vote [in committee]," Feeney says on MSNBC. "The more we talk about our constitutional duties, one by one we are starting to pick up Democrats to our cause."

"Ohhhhhhhh!" exclaims Frankel in disgust.

When Feeney is finished, Frankel asks Ritter if she would like to speak on the floor. Ritter shakes her head no. When Gottlieb is told he'll get five minutes, he says, "I've never spoken for more than five minutes in my whole life."

"He's always had the role of Jewish husband," Greenstein offers. "He doesn't know how to talk for five minutes straight."

When the meeting ends, Frankel has some choice words about Feeney's selection of Stansel. "Dwight was put on the committee for that reason," she tells reporters. "It was deliberate. They try to torture marginal members, really. I told you this was a show, right? Asa Hutchinson was part of the show. I told you last week, I told you the week before, and I'm telling you now: It's a show."  

At 9 a.m., Frankel kicks off another caucus meeting. "First of all, I want you to know that the Republican leadership has been offering some of our members committee assignments, vice chairs, or whatever, if they will vote with them today," she announces. "If anybody gets approached, please let either a floor leader or myself know. I don't want anyone to have the stress of it on yourself."

Then they discuss amendments and floor strategies for 30 minutes before Frankel ends the meeting with a "good luck out there." Richard Machek is one of the Democrats targeted by the Republicans to jump ship. Machek, a flower farmer from Fort Pierce, is reluctant to talk about the Republican offer. "Everything is tempting, but when the dust settles, you don't know if what they're offering is still going to be there," he says. "I'm going to stay with party lines."

Greenstein seems strangely out of sorts. He hasn't cracked a joke all morning. "I guess I'm a little pissed off at stuff," he says. "I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. How would you like to go into battle and know you are going to lose? Try to consider what that is like."

Ritter isn't so much pissed off as defiant. "We shouldn't be here," she says with a look approaching disgust. "By being here we legitimize what they are doing. We should have stayed home."

Slosberg is off to the side of the table practicing his speech. "Thank you, Mr. Speaker," he says to an imaginary Feeney. Meadows overhears this and mimics Slosberg, adding a twist: "Screw you, Mr. Speaker," he says with a laugh.

With that, it's getting close to the 10 a.m. showtime, and so they start making their way to the floor of the House.

Frankel and Feeney have hammered out the rules for the meeting. Following a Congressional model, each side will get two and a half hours to state its case. Republican members bandy about phrases like "sacred duty" and let it be known they are ready to throw out any recount that might be ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. They parrot the Bush campaign's strategy of ridiculing the recount process. Jerry Maygarden, from Pensacola, announces the ballots in question have "become illegal because the voter didn't follow instructions or didn't finish the task." He says the e-mail he receives expresses the people's will: "Most Americans are convinced that we have somehow put common sense to death and substituted in its place legal arguments and silver-tongued lawyers hell-bent on destroying the American electoral process."

Dudley Goodlette, a Republican leader from Naples, announces the legislators "absolutely and wholly" have the power to appoint electors. Goodlette reads something written by James Madison more than 200 years ago: "Without the intervention of the state legislature, the president of the United States cannot be elected at all. It must in all cases have a great share in his appointment and will perhaps in most cases of themselves determine it."

Carlos Lacasa, a Cuban Republican from Miami, utters what may be the most honest words of the day from either side: "Rather than hiding from my partisanship, I will use it like a beacon to guide me in this vote."

Then comes the Democrats' turn. When Feeney turns over the floor, Gelber gives a strong speech that sounds more like an opening argument in a court case than an appeal to the Republicans. Gottlieb's best line: "This isn't about protecting Florida's electors, this is brass-knuckles politics at its very worst. This is about who gets the best seat at the inauguration, who gets the spoils and the Cabinet positions, and who gets to control our nuclear weapons."

Slosberg condenses his ever-present letter to one sentence, the one in which he is called a mensch. He ends by announcing the fat lady hasn't sung yet, which prompts Feeney to ask Frankel if she has a "rebuttal" to Slosberg's contention. The House erupts in laughter and Frankel, who may be a bit overweight but is far from obese, takes what could be seen as a public insult in good humor. "You do not want to hear me sing," she says. "I can assure you."

In the end, there are no surprises at the session, which lasts five hours. Greenstein and Henriquez were correct; it is 79 to 41. Though the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the presidency, the House has made history. Although it is clearly, as Frankel put it, the "ultimate partisan act," a question remains: Would the Democrats have tried the same tactic if they were in the majority? "Crystal ball, I'd like to say no," Greenstein says. "But can I honestly say it? No, I can't."  

So goes Tallahassee, where to the victor goes every spoil, from committee posts to the U.S. presidency. While it may set a dangerous precedent for other state legislatures in future contested presidential elections, the Democrats say the special session likely won't make much of a difference when the legislature meets in March for its regular session. The GOP's Pennsylvania Railroad will run over them just like last year.

"My life is over," says Gottlieb after the special session. "Now, it's back to mediocrity."

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