A Harvard Degree Figures in Fla. Race

Whichever way the fierce contest in Florida’s Broward County turns out today, a Harvard alum won’t be representing District 97 in the state legislature.

But that may come as a surprise to voters who have been keeping up with their mail lately.

In a campaign brochure sent out two weeks ago, Republican candidate Alexander “Sandy” Halperin said he had graduated from Harvard.

The Massachusetts native actually attended Salem State College and New York University’s Dental School before spending four years as an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

The Halperin campaign simply attributed the inaccuracy to a “typo.”

Karen Halperin, the candidate’s daughter, said a newly hired graphic designer had written the brochure and, while the mistake had been corrected before printing, the corrections weren’t incorporated into the final product.

She added that after the material was sent out, the campaign notified the press and the Broward County Fair Campaign Practices Committee but didn’t have the money to mass mail a correction.

But the Democratic incumbent in the Florida House race, Nan Rich, said the mistake demonstrated a lack of “truth and integrity.”

“In the brochure, it says he graduated from Harvard University and next to it was a cap and gown,” Rich said. “So it wasn’t an typographical error. Obviously it was an untruth.”

She has capitalized on the incident in her campaign, sending out several mailings that referred to the phantom degree. She mailed a campaign flier yesterday that reprinted a short New York Times piece on Halperin’s error.

The Miami Herald had reported on the incident Oct. 31, and the story in the Times ran Sunday.

Karen Halperin said she was “amazed that our opponent has been able to get so much mileage about this.”

“I don’t think [Rich] anticipated him coming this close,” she said. “She’s really desperate. I don’t know how someone can make an issue of a typo.”

Rich said the race was close this year because of redistricting that made what was once a Democratic district evenly split between the two major parties.

She added that “people seem to be disturbed” when told about the mailing inaccuracy.

Marilyn Roberts, an associate professor of advertising and political campaigning at the University of Florida, said that while Halperin should be held responsible for his literature, she doubted the incident would have much impact on voters, who will mostly be coming to the polls to choose sides in Florida’s tight gubernatorial race.

“When we batter back and forth like this, oftentimes it causes many voters just to tune out and term it politics as usual,” Roberts said. But “because of the other active high level races, this is not going to affect turnout in this particular race.”

Broward was also among several Florida counties plagued by voting irregularities in the presidential election two years ago. Federal attorneys will observe Broward polls today to prevent violations of civil rights law.

Josh M. Mendelsohn ’05, a Broward County native who has been heavily involved in local politics, said he thought the race was a toss-up despite the discussion of the Harvard incident.

He said that most Florida voters rarely read The New York Times and that “from Broward County’s perspective, this is not a big deal.”

Mendelsohn, who is secretary of the Harvard Republican Club, said the incident didn’t change his mind on who to support.

“It’s very clear that there’s a good candidate in this race and there’s a not very good candidate in this race and a mistake was made,” he said.

He said Halperin had made an “unfortunate error” but that did not weaken his appeal as a candidate.

Karen Halperin said the correct information in her father’s television ads and campaign website make clear that he is not misrepresenting his Harvard affiliation.

“I don’t want to get petty, but our opponent didn’t even graduate from college,” she added.

Rich attended the University of Florida but did not earn a degree.

—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at theodore@fas.harvard.edu.