Politics & Policy

Meek’s Changing Fortunes

Carrie's son, Kendrick, is not used to contested elections.

Unlike his neighbors along the mean streets of inner-city Miami, Kendrick Meek was born sucking on a silver spoon, at least politically speaking. He was the son of the legendary Carrie Meek, who built a political career from the ground up, picking her way from door to door across the cracked-window desolation of Liberty City. She became the first African American to win a place in the Florida congressional delegation and, after years of nit-pick constituent service to the majority blacks and minority Haitians in her impoverished district, she managed to lock down the 17th CD for life. And then for a bit longer, as it happened. In July 2002, just days before the filing deadline, Representative Meek unexpectedly retired. The only candidate prepared to jump into the race at that late date was her son, Kendrick, at the time a highway patrolman and part-time state legislator. The campaign was no pick-and-shovel chore for young Meek. He ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, and then unopposed in the general election. Just as he did in the subsequent elections of 2004, 2006, and 2008. Life, at least in its political dimension, has been more than fair to Kendrick Meek.

When he got to Washington, Meek settled in to a conventional logrolling career that, to this point at least, has managed to avoid disgrace. He has voted with knee-jerk reliability with the Pelosi leadership (98.3 percent of the time in this Congress), while declaring himself a party moderate. From his perch on the Ways and Means Committee, he has become an aggressive earmarker, near the top of his class, spreading grants and contracts around to personal and political favorites. Most of those earmarks have been relatively hygienic, but, according to a May story in the Miami Herald, two of them were ticketed for a South Florida builder who, it was later revealed, had paid the retired Ms. Meek $90,000 in consulting fees. That was the same builder who had given Kendrick Meek’s chief of staff the down payment to buy a house. The same builder, in fact, who is now facing trial for stealing $1 million from a building project supported by the Meeks. The buildings themselves, you’ll be amazed to learn, never got built.

While most of Meek’s congressional activity has been low-key and behind-the-scenes, he has taken a leadership role in racial politics, serving for several years as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. That may sound like a letterhead job with no juice. Hardly. From 2004 through 2008, the foundation raised prodigious amounts of money, almost $55 million. Congressional records pried loose last year show that approximately $1 million of that money was donated to more or less worthy causes. The rest — almost all of it, that is — went for receptions, junkets, theme parties, galas, and other team-building exercises cooked up by Cruise Director Meek. The CBC Foundation story is a scandal of some magnitude, but it has elicited only cursory attention to this point. It remains a ticking package, however, for those in charge, and especially for Kendrick Meek. To tidy up for the 2010 campaign, Meek was moved out of the chairmanship earlier this year in favor of Donald Payne (D., N.J.), who, while no hot-eyed reformer, promised to provide a bit of adult supervision.

After his most recent stroll to reelection, in 2008, Kendrick Meek looked out across the political landscape and saw what he took to be the sort of opportunity he was accustomed to: an effortless, cleared-path campaign to the U.S. Senate. His principal intraparty rivals, he surmised, would find themselves otherwise engaged. And so they did. Bob Wexler, the popular congressman from a neighboring district in South Florida, quit his safe seat to run a pro-Israel think tank. The state’s CFO, Alex Sink, also got out of the way. The formidable Ms. Sink re-directed her sights on Tallahassee and declared for governor. As for the Republicans, well, there were only the slimmest of pickings on that side of the aisle: An obscure congressman was rumored to be gearing up, as also a retired businessman whose name escaped memory. Manifestly, the time had arrived for an affable, young (he is now 43), telegenic African American to realize his full potential in the Age of Obama. In January of 2009, only a few days after starting the term to which he had just been elected, Congressman Meek declared that he would not run for reelection in 2010 and instead would run for the U.S. Senate.

The Meek for Senate campaign appears in hindsight to have peaked at just about that time. In the twelve months that followed, Meek plodded around the state without putting any distance between himself and those durable poll favorites, Don’t Know and Don’t Care. Over on the Republican side, by contrast, the pace began to pick up quickly. Charlie Crist, a sure thing for reelection as governor and a virtual lock for a spot on the 2012 GOP ticket, decided inexplicably to run for the Senate. (I and a thousand other people have speculated elsewhere on what might have been going through his fevered brain.) To secure his GOP base, Crist first tacked sharply to the right, hoping to choke off his primary opponent, the former speaker of the Florida house, Marco Rubio. While Rubio has vulnerabilities, his right flank is not one of them. Scrambling month after month to find political traction as a hard-shell conservative, Crist came up embarrassingly short, and, as winter turned to spring, he demonstrated the flexibility for which a few Floridians still admire him. He changed his registration to Independent and began to attack his Democratic opponent from the left. For the first time in his life, Kendrick Meek has found himself in a real battle.

The early returns are not encouraging for Meek, though they are not yet dispositive. Crist began, typically, with a few brazen sorties into the black community. Back in 2006, he won 18 percent of the black vote, and he predicts that he will do even better this time. That may not be an empty boast. Crist frequently nudges the press to call him Florida’s first black governor — he is nothing if not a compulsively attentive suitor — and Meek, for his part, rattled a few black supporters by campaigning for Hillary Clinton in 2008. Meek will win the black vote, of course, but he may not run up the fat margins he would need to win statewide.

With organized labor, Crist is doing better still. Meek won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, but the single most important labor player in the state, the Florida Education Association, has just issued a “dual endorsement” of Crist and Meek. FEA endorsements of Democratic candidates are semi-automatic, and the FEA hedge is thus counted as a big win for Crist. But the make-or-break showdown between Crist and Meek will be staged in the condos — those clusters of aging, transplanted, heavily Jewish voters in Broward and Dade counties. At the moment, my sense is that Crist has jumped out to an early lead that could build into a wave. The condo voters are savvy and mobile, and they don’t want to waste a vote on Kendrick Meek if he can’t beat Marco Rubio. (The possible election of Rubio is, in the rote phrase of the condo voters — all together now — a “frightening prospect.”)

The questions for Meek thus seemed to reduce to these three: Can he win a solid majority of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote against Crist and Rubio? Can he beat Crist in the condos? And can he deliver an Obama-sized black vote in November? At this stage of the campaign, the answers would appear to be no, no, and no.

But, as we are obliged to say repeatedly in Florida politics this year, Wait! There’s more! Just as Meek was dialing in the range and deflection for his counterattack on Crist, what should appear on living-room TVs across the state but a Democratic mystery challenger. Somebody named Jeff Greene, about whom the political clerisy said with one voice, “Who?” This Greene is no relation to the South Carolina space cadet Alvin Greene, but he might as well be. The Florida Greene has no record of political activity and no public profile. As his current media omnipresence suggests, however, he has lots of money, and he has stated a willingness to spend $40 million of it to win the seat. His massive “intro” media buy seems to have made a nice first impression. In June polling, Greene has pulled into contention with Meek.

While Florida newspapers cannot be described as hotbeds of investigative zeal, a few reporters have been roused to poke around in the mysterious Mr. Greene’s background. What we know from the early file is that he seems to have arrived with a few extra pieces of luggage. To begin with, he made much of his money by betting that homeowners, Floridians among them, would not be able to pay their mortgages. As you may have heard, that turned out to be a good bet, and it netted Greene hundreds of millions. Then there was the odd item that Greene had rented a guest house to Heidi Fleiss, the ex-con who once ran a prostitution ring for upscale consumers in Los Angeles. Nobody knows quite what to make of that datum. And then, most arrestingly, came the report that Mike Tyson had served as best man at Greene’s wedding. An unusual choice, it was generally agreed.

Greene has persuaded much of the press that it’s making too much of the Tyson story, but I wonder. Aren’t there some decisions in life that you can’t make too much of? Think of it. It’s your wedding day, one of the two or three most important days of your life. You’re there to honor the women you cherish most — your bride, your mother, your sisters. The gathering is intimate, the atmosphere is charged, the bar is open, and the man you select to stand up for you is . . . Mike Tyson? Couldn’t we have expected a more responsible choice, somebody with the moral stature of, say, Charlie Sheen or Rod Blagojevich? In another cycle, Jeff Greene would be an amusement. But this is 2010, a time of too little hope and too much change. Money still talks. Résumés don’t.

You could say it has been a long year for Kendrick Meek. It’s likely to get longer.

– Neal B. Freeman, an NR contributor, can be reached at nealfreeman@blackwellcorp.com.

 

 

Neal B. FreemanMr. Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line. This article has been adapted from his new book, Walk with Me: An Invitation to Faith.

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