State House candidate Freda Stevens first met shadowy Democratic operative Barry Harris in June at the monthly meeting of the Broward County Democratic Executive Committee. At the time, she was trying to decide whether to run again in 2010 against Evan Jenne, who had beaten her in 2008.
When Harris approached her at the meeting, she was leery.
"Barry is sort of like a wad of gum on the wall: You see it, but you don't want to look at it," Stevens says. "He's sort of like the person in a movie that if a mobster goes and kills somebody, he's the guy who will clean out the car. He does the dirty work for people."
Stevens claims that Harris told her he would support her campaign so long as she didn't run against Jenne, a fellow Democrat. He told her he was longtime friends with Jenne's father, Ken Jenne, the former Broward sheriff and state senator. Then he suggested she run in District 91, where Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff is giving up her seat.
She says Harris told her that if she chose to run in District 91, he would bring in big-money interests to support her. That was the beginning of a game of political seduction that would eventually involve Evan Jenne himself and prompted Stevens' campaign to file a criminal complaint last week with state agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Jenne vehemently denies he was behind any conspiracy to bribe Stevens out of his district. Whether Jenne did anything wrong or not, though, the case exposes the underbelly of the Democratic Party in Broward County and reveals the way big money — or promises of it — can alter the political landscape.
The central figure in the case isn't really Jenne but the alleged surrogate, Harris, a longtime operative whom Stevens and Jenne both say was deeply involved.
The 56-year-old Harris describes himself as a passionate believer in Democratic values who only wants the best for the party. Back in 1980, when he was 28 years old, he was sentenced to probation after being charged with felonies for buying property with bad checks (he says he's not officially a felon because adjudication was withheld). He says he made amends for his crime and would never do anything like it again.
Harris has served as an area leader for the local Democratic Party and is tight with Broward Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar. He's worked for numerous local and state campaigns. As for his profession, in a 2005 Orlando Sentinel article, his occupation was listed as "Wal-Mart cashier." He runs a political consulting company called Sunshine Political Connection and has appeared on the payroll of numerous local and state political campaigns.
Harris says his involvement with Stevens' campaign resulted from his longtime friendship with Evan Jenne.
"I was doing what I did as a friend," he said.
Did Jenne ask him to act on his behalf?
"No, he didn't," Harris answered.
Harris admits that he told Stevens he would try to raise money for her if she didn't run against Jenne. Among the deep-pocketed donors, she claims, was the law firm of Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, which employed Ken Jenne after he was released from prison following a felony fraud conviction. Evan Jenne also has an employment tie to the firm, working as a consultant for a health-care company called Edify that is co-owned by RRA's president, Scott Rothstein.
Stevens says Harris also offered to set her up with landowner and dealmaker Austin Forman, one of the wealthiest and most influential political players in Fort Lauderdale.
"I didn't even know who Austin Forman was at that time," she says.
Harris conceded he contacted Forman on her behalf but said he never mentioned or contacted the Rothstein law firm. "I said I would try to raise funds for her," Harris says. "I made some calls for her, but because she is a quote-unquote 'pro-life Democrat,' it was very hard to raise funds for her."
Stevens says Harris told her that the people backing Evan Jenne had a grand plan for him and that it didn't include fighting with her for his seat in 2010.
"Barry said that the people backing Evan wanted Evan in leadership and wanted him in the position of House minority leader by 2012," Stevens says. "They were going to fight for a Democratic majority, and if that happened, they would make Evan the speaker, and he would go to Congress from there. And they wanted him unopposed so he could recruit for open seats."
Jenne says there is no truth to any of that. "I was on the leadership team in my first term, and I have no interest in being the Democratic leader," he told me this morning. "I like my position being floor leader."
Stevens decided not to run against Jenne and instead announced on June 30 that she was going to run for District 91. Harris set up a lunch meeting between Stevens and Jenne a week later, on July 7, at a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant in Davie. Stevens says Jenne and Harris showed up eager to help her campaign.
"I was 20 minutes late because I really didn't want to go," she says. "My family was screaming in my ear 'Don't go.' But I went ahead and went. Evan was there with bells on. He said he was going to get me an appointment with RRA [Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler]. He was going to make an appointment for me with Austin Forman. Barry told me he could raise me $5,000."
About three weeks later, at Stevens' July 31 campaign kickoff at the Melting Pot in Fort Lauderdale, it was Jenne who introduced Stevens as the "next state representative for District 91," according to Stevens' blog, which includes a photo of Jenne and Stevens mugging happily for the camera. Stevens quotes Jenne's introduction on her blog:
"As many of you know, Freda and I were opponents last year. I was happy when we were able to sit down over lunch and talk about our futures in the Democratic Party. After lunch, she sent me a special note with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: 'Power is the only thing capable of turning an enemy into a friend!' So, with that said, I am happy to introduce to you your next state representative for District 91 — Mrs. Freda Stevens!"
Interesting MLK quote, but the politicians mangled it. King actually said that love, not power, is capable of turning an enemy into a friend. No matter what brought them together, Jenne and Stevens were arm-in-arm at the event, along with Harris, who was working on Stevens' campaign.
Obviously things soured a great deal after that, perhaps due to fundraising promises that weren't kept. Stevens wouldn't discuss several details of the criminal complaint. Although the case is intriguing, proving wrongdoing by Jenne seems unlikely, especially since Harris says he was acting on his own. "Why would I bother getting her out of the race?" says Jenne. "I beat her by 35 points in a three-way race. She registered 15 to 17 points overall. I had no reason to want her out of the race."
Perhaps, but politicians never welcome opposition either. After Stevens left Jenne's district, another Democratic challenger, Chris Chiari, moved in. That too has been a contentious race so far and already involves an ethics complaint filed against Jenne.
It's the beginning of an already dramatic election season. And as long as the Barry Harris-type operatives of the world are in action, you can bet there will be more to come.