Florida is acting just like Massachusetts

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist, 12/12/2000

ELF-SERVING bureaucrats, bloodthirsty politicians, and ice-cold revenge. Add a blanket of snow and the Sunshine State is looking a lot more like the Bay State every day. And that's a compliment.

The benign New England view of Florida as a travel destination best suited to revitalizing a faded Nantucket tan obviously provides an incomplete picture of the state's keener attributes.

Since Nov. 7, Florida has been subjected to round-the-clock scrutiny of a still-evolving political drama. We and the rest of the nation now know its darkest secrets, from butterfly ballots and pregnant chads to feuding judges and power-hungry politicians.

It all makes Key Largo land a lot more scintillating than many of us had previously thought.

For Northerners, Florida is Disney World, shuffle board, alligators, and hurricanes. For those of us who make it to South Beach, it's an education in topless and thong-bottomed sunbathing - ''Mommy, why don't those lady's breasts move?'' - as we amble along the powdery sand in baggy khakis and Black Dog T-shirts.

Our image of Floridians ranges from the frenzied relatives of little Elian to the spoiled rich of Palm Beach and Jupiter.

Here in Massachusetts, we have our Cambridge intelligentsia, debating the merits of Al Gore's ditching of Larry Tribe in favor of David Boies before the US Supreme Court. (Clearly a mistake, Mr. Vice President.) Down in Florida, we assume a more vacuous breed hisses poolside at the Breakers over Abe Gosman's latest bankruptcy or the cost of liposuction.

Stereotypes are naturally simplistic versions of truth. To drive that point home, Florida's Election 2000 nightmare reveals a state with much more to chew over than the turnout of socialites at the most recent American Ireland Fund soiree.

At the top of Florida's political pyramid is Governor Jeb Bush, who embodies the kind of royal bloodlines Massachusetts voters well appreciate. His drive to deliver Florida's 25 electoral votes to his brother, Texas Governor George W. Bush, is perfectly understandable to the most junior Bay State pol.

The post-Election Day fallout puts Florida's governor in the center of a political storm that stands to tear his state apart, not to mention his political career. Here, we call that a Boston brawl. And we enjoy every second of it, even as we wring our hands and decry the turf wars and political wreckage.

Eat your heart out, Paul Cellucci. Jeb Bush was once so popular, fans mobbed him like a rock star. Now, his political future could be buried in the hanging chad of Miami-Dade.

Before the election, Florida's minority residents were angry about their governor's proposal to end racial preferences in university admissions and some public contracts. Afterwards, they got even angrier over their belief that Republicans tried to stop them from voting on Nov. 7.

As Jeb acts to protect his big brother, but tries to stay out of the spotlight while doing it, other Florida politicians are on the frontlines for him. They include Katherine Harris, the secretary of state whose political position and makeup application garnered her as much name recognition and negative press as Kathie Lee Gifford; Florida's House speaker, Tom Feeney, and the Senate president, John McKay.

Can you imagine, Speaker Finneran? Those crazy Florida politicians are taking hits for Jeb! That would never happen in Massachusetts, even if everyone shared the same party affiliation - in fact, especially if they did.

Fortunately, there is much more going on in Florida for political junkies up north to revel in:

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas may have convinced his county's canvassing board to stop recounting ballots because he is thinking of switching party affiliation and wants to curry favor with Republicans.

The Florida Supreme Court is feuding with various circuit judges, including Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who turned down a Gore campaign request to hand-count ballots. In ruling to overturn Sauls, members of the Florida Supreme Court are now feuding with one another.

And of course, the Florida state Legislature, which is engaged in a long-running feuding with the Florida Supreme Court, is now feuding with Democrats across the country.

Ah, Florida. It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want live there. It's a lot like home, but you miss the turning of the leaves.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.