From Madam Secretary to Cruella DeVil?

Mary Kiffmeyer and Katherine Harris: Two heads, one black heart
Corey Anderson

It is no secret that Minnesota's embattled Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer is an admirer of Katherine Harris, the former Florida election chief who became notorious after presiding over her state's 2000 voting fiasco. Back in 2001, Harris was selected as the keynote speaker for a Kiffmeyer fundraiser at the Metropolitan Club--an appearance canceled only because of the suspension of air travel following the 9/11 attacks.

Fact is, Kiffmeyer should admire Harris. They have much in common. There are a few differences in biography. Harris came from old money (her father was a Sunshine State citrus and cattle magnate), while Kiffmeyer was born into old-style Minnesota poverty, one of 14 children in a household where they slept five to a bed and had no running water. But those are trifling distinctions when you consider the similarities in disposition, philosophy, and career trajectory.

Both Harris and Kiffmeyer became the chief election official in their respective states after earning reputations as hardworking, loyal party soldiers. Kiffmeyer got her start as a relentless caucus participant, election judge, and helpmate to her husband, Ralph, a one-term state rep (who is best known for trying to ban the sale of dildos in Minnesota). Harris launched her career in the Florida State Senate, where she was a darling of the Christian Coalition and anti-abortion groups.

As secretaries of state, both Harris and Kiffmeyer have come under intense fire for naked displays of partisanship. Harris's story in this regard is well known. Overseeing the 2000 election while simultaneously acting as Bush's Florida campaign chair (how does one spell conflict, anyway?), she scrubbed thousands of mostly black, mostly Democratic voters from the voting roles, turned a blind eye to the use of faulty election equipment that effectively disenfranchised thousands more, and blocked the recount of disputed votes. In other words, she succeeded in making the idea of Cuban election monitors on U.S. soil seem palatable.

Kiffmeyer obviously can't hold a candle to Harris's achievements. But that's not to say she hasn't tried. There were her unsuccessful efforts to toss out voter registrations based on the slightest inconsistencies in the forms (slapped down by a judge, thank goodness). Then there are her famously acrimonious relationships with county election officials; those stories just keep coming. More recently, Kiffmeyer raised eyebrows with her ham-handed recruitment of election monitors from the likes of the hard right Taxpayers League of Minnesota e-mail list. At the end of the day, Madam Secretary has left little doubt about what she'd like to see happen come November 2.

Who knows? Maybe Kiffmeyer figures a desirable outcome at the ballot box this year will boost her political fortunes down the road. That worked for Harris, who--despite her bungling of the 2000 election (or, on second thought, because of it)--managed to spring from her stuffy secretary of state job to the glamorous life of a U.S. congresswoman. That, it so happens, is the very ambition Kiffmeyer is long rumored to have harbored: a stab at fellow Republican Mark Kennedy's Sixth District congressional seat in 2006 (in the event he should make a Senate bid in 2006 or lose this year's election).

In the final analysis, it is not just rank partisanship that makes the Kiffmeyer-Harris comparison feel inevitable. Both share a more notable quality: absolute certainty in their personal righteousness. As is so often the case, this seems rooted mainly in fundamentalist religiosity, a creed both women wear quite publicly.

It is no accident that when Harris decided to pen her autobiography, she picked Thomas Nelson Publishers, an evangelical concern whose best sellers include titles such as What Would Jesus Eat? More tellingly, at the height of the contentious 2000 election, Harris told supporters that she took special solace from the Bible and likened her situation to that of the Old Testament heroine Queen Esther.

Kiffmeyer, likewise, has seen fit to invoke the Good Book as often as possible. At the National Day of Prayer this year, she told the assembled faithful that the five "most destructive words" in American life today are "separation of church and state."

And this is the woman in charge of Minnesota elections. God help us all.

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