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Lifting the hood on a stalled election

Fourth in a series of articles about the reactions of everyday people to the 2000 presidential election. The series was reported and written before Sept. 11.

He pulls a plastic chair out of the garage, parks it on the greasy curb in front of Pit Stop Auto, tips back his black ball cap.

"So, you want to know what I think about the election?" he asks slowly. "Well, I'm just a regular guy who doesn't really give much of a hoot. But since you asked, I'll tell you what's wrong . . ."

Raymond Brown Jr., 66, grew up in Ocala. Left home at 16 to join the Army. Did two tours in Vietnam, three in Germany, plus time in Korea, Hawaii and on four other U.S. bases. Rose to the rank of master sergeant. Commanded 250 men.

He's just as proud to have met Charlie Daniels. Roy Acuff. All the other entertainers who played at his nightclub, the Woodland Club, near Frankfurt, Germany. "I hung out with some big ones," he says from his seat facing Martin Luther King Jr. (Ninth) Street, near 17th Avenue S. "My place was packed every night."

"Okay, okay. You want to know what's wrong. There's a lot of things wrong.

"Number one: The news media take the East Coast returns and project the winners before people even go to the polls on the West Coast. That's wrong," he says, warming up.

He's waiting for a mechanic to fix his Honda. Something isn't right with the front driver's-side wheel. While he watches the worker and analyzes the election, Brown's two elementary school-age boys crawl in and out of his lap, over his back, around his shoulders, begging him, bugging him in rapid German, interspersed with the all-too-American: "Coca-Cola!" (pointing at the soda machine humming above the din of dropped wrenches) "Coca-Cola!" (digging in their dad's pockets for quarters).

"Number two," Brown says, shooing away his sons. "Maybe it should be first, because it was the biggest thing that bothered me. Anyway, number two: After having lived in Europe that last 10 years, I can't believe there were all those questions about overseas ballots being stamped right. I mean, I went to a lot of trouble to vote. Now I wonder if all those times it even counted."

Brown is wearing white Nikes, green shorts, a thin gray moustache, a diamond stud in his left ear. He was in Germany during this last U.S. presidential election, mailed a ballot for Gore.

Every night for three weeks in November, he and his wife waited up past 3 a.m., watching CNN, expecting a result. By the beginning of week four, they went back to The West Wing and Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

"The whole thing became an embarrassment," he says. "Oh, America got to be the laughingstock of the world.

"Was there fraud in the election? I don't know. But it sure left a lot of room to the imagination."

Brown moved back to Florida this spring, bought a house in the Lakewood subdivision of St. Petersburg, retired to spend more time with his kids. He whirls the youngest boy over his shoulder, into his lap, hugs him and hands him $1. "Now share," he says.

Then Brown goes back to number 3. He says he really doesn't want to know the results of a ballot recount. "The Supreme Court gave George Bush the election. Now it's history."

He lights a Marlboro Red, tips back his chair. The air smells like gasoline and oil. The sun is setting across the street. The mechanic is bolting the tire back on. The boys are squabbling over the soda.

Number four: "Gore did a lot of things he shouldn't have done. Making phone calls from his office like that. It's not unethical, necessarily. But what is it?"

Brown snubs out the cigarette on his Nike, stands to leave.

Not without number five: "We are a free society. I still believe the way we elect our officials in America is about the best in the world. But this is the year 2001. We can improve our voting procedures, make sure this never happens again. We have the technology."

He takes his keys from the mechanic, pays his bill, rounds up his boys. Then he comes back to the curb. He has something else to say.

Number 6?

"No, not really." He pulls down his ball cap, smiles slightly. "It's just, I was thinking . . .

"The funny part about all this is that Florida became the topic of conversation even more than America. Everyone, everywhere, was watching Florida, waiting to see what Katherine Harris was going to do. She was programmed to get a real good job in the Bush administration, you know. And when all this went down with the ballots and the chads and all, it hurt her, hurt her badly. Now she can't move up, they can't move her up even if they wanted to."

Maybe it's not that funny after all, Brown says, rethinking things. Actually, it's just ironic. Sort of sad.

"She's a bright woman, you know. A Harvard grad. She did her job to the best of her ability.

"But oh, a lot of things went wrong."