When he announced his Senate run last January, four-term Miami Rep. Kendrick Meek had a lot going for him: a former president for a pal, prodigious fundraising (with Bill Clinton's help), a solid political pedigree, and with the nation's first black president sitting in the White House, a chance to make a little history of his own.
Meek launched an ambitious drive to become the first Florida statewide candidate to qualify by petition. If elected, he'd be the state's first black U.S. senator (his mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek, was Florida's first black House member) and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Instead, Meek has been a bit player in the drama surrounding the meteoric rise of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who started running five months after Meek, and Rubio's takedown of Florida's once unsinkable governor, Charlie Crist.
Polls show Meek stuck in the teens in a three-way race and losing significant Democratic support to Crist. Some Democrats are starting to whisper -- or say outright -- that it might be time to abandon Meek and back the well-known, well-liked governor, in order to prevent the far-right Rubio from winning in November.
Meek briefly drew media attention after the Haiti earthquake in January, even capturing footage of a child's rescue on his cellphone. A former state trooper, whose House district is teeming with Haitian-Americans, Meek had gone to the Dominican Republican and dashed across the border by Jeep to view the rescue effort. But as Haiti faded from the news, so did Meek.
In late April, Crist grabbed the klieg lights, vetoing a controversial teacher tenure bill, then making a dramatic exit from the GOP to run as an independent. Showdowns with his former allies in the Republican-dominated state Legislature and the Gulf oil spill crisis followed. Now, as he merrily reverses his position on offshore drilling, mulls dragging lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session to consider a drilling ban, and revels in rhetorically hugging Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, Crist seems to be having the time of his life. Meek, not so much.
"My belief is that the Meek campaign is not looking very strong at all," said Miami-based Democratic political strategist Freddy Balsera, who helped craft Barack Obama's Hispanic media message in 2008. "I've heard their argument that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Florida, but that assumes that all of those Democrats are going to vote for Meek, and that they're going to come out in high numbers. I don't see anything in the numbers or the polling that confirms that."
He added: "The question I ask myself as a Democrat who's raising money for Democrats and promoting Democratic causes in Florida, is how does he go from 18 [percent] to 38? The undecideds are minimal in this race and it seems people have made up their minds. I don't see a strategy for him to get there."
Meek's campaign, not surprisingly, insists that their struggles will prove short-lived.
"For sure, Gov. Crist is initially polling strongly in a three-way race for the simple reason that Kendrick Meek is not widely known at this point in the campaign," said Meek campaign manager Abe Dyk. "But the apparent strength that Gov. Crist is currently registering in polls will not last."
Indeed, 40 percent of voters in the recent Mason-Dixon poll and 31 percent in a Rasmussen poll didn't know enough about Meek to form an opinion. Dyk says that gives Meek the most room to grow, once the campaign starts advertising, voters begin paying attention, and Democrats take a closer look at the candidates' records.
At that point, Dyk claims, it will be a clear contrast "between a progressive and two conservatives, who both have the same economic plans, who both are pro-life, and who were both involved in the same credit card scandal," referring to lavish spending of donations by state party officials including Rubio himself and Crist's handpicked party chairman, Jim Greer, which the IRS, FBI and the U.S. attorney in Tallahassee are investigating.
Democrats enjoy a 700,000-voter registration advantage in Florida, and since the 2008 election, 61,643 more Democrats than Republicans have joined the rolls. But during this same time period, even more people -- 217,040, to be exact, many of them white or Hispanic -- registered "unaffiliated," just like Charlie Crist. Veteran Florida political analyst Lance deHaven-Smith says the race will hinge on how strongly the Democratic and Republican coalitions resist Crist's advances.
"Rubio will attract the religious right, the Cuban-Americans, and perhaps most of the libertarians," deHaven-Smith said. "Meek will carry the New Deal liberals, African-Americans, and probably most of the Clinton pragmatists. Crist will attract support from Wall Street Journal Republicans (concentrated in Tampa and Jacksonville) and some of the Clinton pragmatists.
"The question is, who will win the Blue Dogs and the non-Cuban Hispanics, [and] will the new voters who entered the electoral process in 2008 to vote for Obama turn out? The higher the turnout, the better for Meek."
It's Meek's base that Crist is going after. And the very things that once made the governor an electable, big-tent Republican make him dangerous to the Democrat.
Crist won 18 percent of the black vote in 2006, while Meek angered many blacks in his district by siding with Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the presidential primary. The governor is making a play for teachers, offshore drilling opponents and unions. He was the lone non-Democratic speaker at the Florida AFL-CIO convention in Jacksonville last weekend, with rumors of a dual endorsement of him and fellow speaker Meek in the air. (Ultimately, the AFL-CIO opted to back Meek.)
Crist has even come out in support of a citizen-sponsored amendment (and against a poison pill alternative from Republicans) that would limit the gerrymandering that has helped the GOP dominate the Florida Legislature since the 1990s.
"If I'm Charlie Crist I'm telling people I'm the guy who can beat Marco Rubio," said Steve Schale, who ran Barack Obama's Florida campaign (for which I briefly worked). "I've heard from people who have gotten the pitch calls from the governor and it's very much along those lines. At this point it's an effective message for him. That doesn't mean it's a reality in six months."
Some, however, see that reality already setting in.
Balsera, who hasn't taken a position on the race and called Meek "a very decent guy who's really working his tail off," said Crist offers a plausible alternative for Democrats whose main goal is keeping the ultra-conservative Rubio out of the Senate.
"It would be a step in the wrong direction if Marco Rubio wins the Senate seat," Balsera said. "But if Crist wins, we're talking about somebody who may have an alignment with a lot of Democrats on a number of issues."
Crist's veto of the teacher tenure bill, SB6, earned him a "thank you" television ad from the Florida Education Association, a Democratic-friendly group that represents 167,000 teachers. The FEA endorsed Meek in the primary in February, but it has now dual-endorsed Meek and Crist for the general election. Though Meek is a longtime friend of educators, having handed former Gov. Jeb Bush a defeat by pushing through a constitutional amendment limiting class sizes when he was a state senator, union members are now wavering.
"I think you have to look at a person's entire body of work," one state union leader said on condition of anonymity. "But a lot of individual members like Charlie Crist, they like what he did on SB6 and feel they owe him their support." And Crist is actively courting their support on his website, in his home base of Tampa-St. Petersburg (where two of his sisters were schoolteachers), and even in Meek's Miami backyard, where Crist has received rock-star welcomes at post-veto appearances at schools.
Trouble in the condos
The sprawling condominium communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties are home to the largest and third-largest caches of Democratic voters in Florida, respectively. Some voters there have yet to warm to Meek.
Lori Parrish, a prominent Democrat and the elected Broward County property appraiser, was thrilled with Crist's SB6 veto, and said if the governor issues an expected veto of a pair of restrictive abortion measures passed by conservative legislators, she'll consider publicly endorsing him.
"I'll be 62 by Election Day. I can remember a time when abortion wasn't safe and it wasn't legal," said Parrish. "Marco Rubio [who favors the abortion bill], for someone like me, in my generation, is a very scary proposition."
Parrish called Meek "a nice enough guy from what I know of him," saying, "I've known his mother for years, and he votes right, but I certainly haven't seen him around much in Broward."
She said taking a chance on Meek simply isn't worth the risk of electing Rubio. "I wouldn't want to waste my vote," she said.
Parrish said other prominent Democrats she talks to in Broward and Palm Beach privately agree with her, and the Palm Beach Post reported last week that Andre Fladell, an influential figure on the Palm Beach condo circuit, is openly courting Crist, along with what he calls "a significant number of Democratic leaders."
Former Palm Beach Post political editor Brian Crowley, who has covered Florida politics for 30 years and now writes the Crowley Political Report, sees red flags for Meek.
"I think that Kendrick has got an uphill battle still within the Democratic primary," Crowley said. "He has a great deal of work to do among the condos and Jewish voters. He's been running for a year. That's a long time not to have met with these people."
And while Crowley agreed that no one can predict this unprecedented race, "I don't think [Meek's] poll numbers suggest he's anywhere near getting the third of the vote he needs to win. Even without the Charlie Crist factor, if he was in a normal Democratic primary doing the normal things a Democrat has to do, if I have serious condo leaders who are saying we haven't seen him, and we don't hear from him, that's not healthy."
Crowley sees another potential x-factor: Robert Wexler. The popular Democrat and early Obama supporter left Congress last year, having represented the same heavily Jewish condo communities that are critical of Meek. His former chief of staff, Eric Johnson, has joined the Crist campaign as an advisor. And if Wexler were to endorse his old friend Crist, with whom he served in the state Legislature, it could open the door for other liberal Democrats to follow.
"Kendrick at this point hasn't built a solid enough base among Democrats to prevent them from going shopping," Crowley said. "That doesn't mean they don't all come home, but we also have a cycle where voters aren't necessarily doing what we expect them to do."
Dyk doubts many Democrats will ultimately go rogue.
"The governor may have occasionally stood up to the very worst of his party, but that doesn't make him a progressive or even a moderate," Dyk said. "There's only one progressive in the race, and that's Kendrick Meek."
Jack Shiffrel, a member of Broward's Democratic Executive Committee, puts it more bluntly.
"Any Democrats who support Crist are idiots," Shiffrel said. "If somebody is a Democrat because they believe in the principles and ideals of the Democratic Party, they have to vote for Kendrick because he's the only one in the race who believes in the principles and ideals of the Democratic Party. Charlie Crist believes in one thing, and that's Charlie Crist."
Enter the billionaire
With three months to go before the Aug. 24 primary, Meek has yet another challenge: the first real primary in his political career.
Jeff Greene joined former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre in contesting the Democratic nomination last month. But while Ferre has run a diffident campaign, Greene, a Palm Beach billionaire with a colorful back story (Mike Tyson was the best man at his wedding and he once rented his guest house to Heidi Fleiss), has the potential to make life uncomfortable for Meek.
Like Rick Scott, the former hospital mogul (whose company paid billions in fines for Medicare fraud) who has bought his way into the Florida GOP gubernatorial primary against front-runner Bill McCollum, Greene could spend big money defining Meek before Meek gets the chance to define himself.
Already, Greene is up with a statewide media buy for two 30-second TV ads, and he's indicated he's willing to spend $40 million in the primary. As of March 31, Meek had about $3.7 million on hand -- less than Rubio and less than half of Crist's bank. His campaign will have to decide whether to spend precious dollars they'd rather save for the general election, or stand back and watch Greene buy up name ID.
Greene has issues: He made much of his fortune betting against the subprime mortgage market via credit default swaps, and once ran as a Republican. But as Schale put it, "you never completely count out a guy with a billion dollars."
Greene's campaign, which is being advised by Howard Dean's former Internet guru Joe Trippi, has attacked Meek as an ineffective "Washington insider" and questioned his ethics.
Then last week, the Miami Herald updated a story it broke in 2007 about developer Dennis Stackhouse, accused of bilking Miami-Dade County out of nearly $1 million for a biotech park that never materialized. The proposed development, Poinciana Park, was supposed to help revive Meek's congressional district, which is dotted with poverty and unemployment. Meek sought more than $72,000 in earmarks for the project, plus a $1 million grant for job training. His mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek, was paid $90,000 as a consultant on the project and given a $40,000 Cadillac Escalade.
Meek says he knew nothing about the SUV and has insisted he and his mother didn't discuss the Stackhouse project. But the Herald obtained police records indicating the two may indeed have talked. And the Herald investigation revealed Meek's former chief of staff, Anthony Williams, got $13,000 in mortgage down-payment help from Stackhouse, at a time Williams was working for both the congressman, and for Carrie Meek's nonprofit. Meek denies knowing about the mortgage money, and told the Herald he would have fired Williams if he had. Greene has called for a House ethics investigation.
While Meek's campaign has swung back at Greene's subprime housing bets, which they say especially hurt Floridians, Greene spokesman Paul Blank highlighted the dangers of that strategy for Meek:
"We want to run a positive campaign on ideas, jobs and the economy," Blank said. "But if Kendrick wants to play the typical politics as usual and just attack us, then we're going to point out that he got his seat in a backroom deal [In 2002, Carrie Meek retired suddenly, leaving little time for challengers to take on her son], he's done questionable things for campaign contributors like Stackhouse, and that he was taking money from Wackenhut [security] while Wackenhut did business with the state while he was in the state Legislature; the same kind of backroom wheeling and dealing that is wrong with politics."
It's a hell of a way to finally get some attention.
Joy-Ann Reid's political column appears twice a month in the Miami Herald. She is the editor of ReidReport.com.