When Kendrick Meek exited the Real Dem Express in West Tampa last week, he was all smiles as he greeted well-wishers waiting for him in front of the West Tampa Public Library, one of 30 stops the Democratic Senate candidate was making during the 10-day bus tour. But his demeanor noticeably changed when reporters queried him about the overwhelming negativity that had permeated most of his debate with Jeff Greene less than 24 hours earlier.
"I wanted to set the tone from the beginning that hopefully we can address issues facing Floridians," he began, before blaming his opponent for lowering the discourse. "Every other word out of Jeff Greene's mouth is, 'It's because of Kendrick Meek. It's raining today because of Kendrick Meek, the oil spill is because of Kendrick Meek.' So, everything that comes out of his mouth, because he has very little to talk about, is negative. And in turn we have to defend ourselves. We just can't leave his charges unanswered." Later in the day in St. Petersburg, he succinctly characterized his opinion of his opponent: "Jeff Greene is a bad, bad man."
It's easy to understand why Meek feels that way now. The charges from his wealthy challenger via mailers and television ads have come fast and furious in recent weeks, describing Meek variously as a crook, as someone who hasn't accomplished much in eight years in Washington other than give himself raises, and as being responsible in part for the Gulf oil spill. Some of the charges have legitimacy (it's true that none of the legislation he's sponsored has passed, though that's not unusual in Congress). Others are completely absurd (the oil-spill allegation). But together they've further dented a candidacy that had already been playing catchup with his competition all year long.
For much of the 2010 campaign, Kendrick Meek was The Other Guy, the sacrificial Democrat thrown into the mix when pollsters surveyed the Marco Rubio/Charlie Crist battle for the U.S. Senate seat.
Meek had essentially intimidated other serious Democrats in 2009 from challenging him after he received major union endorsements (as well as having former President Bill Clinton host two big fundraisers for him). But the 43-year-old Miami Congressman has consistently been accused of underperforming, finishing a distant third in polls behind two of the most well-known politicos in the country, and posting dangerously low numbers when it came to the public's awareness of who he actually is.
But if the entry of Palm Beach real estate billionaire Jeff Greene into the race in June was seen optimistically by some Democrats as a way to bring more attention to Meek's candidacy, it hasn't worked out as planned.
Now, just days before the August 24 Senate Democratic Primary, Meek is in the electoral fight of his life, trying to stave off an opponent who was a complete unknown in Florida electoral politics just three months ago.
Pat Kemp is chair of the Hillsborough Democratic Party. She attributes Greene's success in the polls (which currently suggest a dead heat) to his successful marketing of Meek as a dirty lawmaker.
"When you have that kind of money with the ads, the multiple mailers all highlighting the Stackhouse incident, it's been a difficult thing for Meek."
The "Stackhouse incident," as Kemp referred to it, has haunted Meek during the campaign. Three times while in Congress, Meek sought millions of dollars in earmarks for a developer named Dennis Stackhouse, who has since been indicted on multiple counts of grand theft and organized scheme to defraud. Stackhouse paid Meek's mother, former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, $90,000 as a consultant, gave her free use of a leased Cadillac Escalade and donated the use of a 2,600-square-foot office for her foundation.
Meek has also been put on the defensive about his nine years working for the Wackenhut Corporation, the security firm where he was employed during his time in the state Legislature. Wackenhut also employed Meek's wife and mother as lobbyists, and Greene has accused Meek of a conflict of interest since he did not recuse himself from voting on legislation that impacted the firm's bottom line.
But in the competition for most baggage, Jeff Greene gives Meek a serious run for his money. Already denounced for having made millions off the sub-prime mortgage crisis when he entered the race in June, Greene has had his character questioned in recent weeks by press revelations about him being a bully to employees, as well as by various and conflicted versions of a now-infamous trip to Cuba aboard his yacht, Summerwind in 2007.
But the underlying question about the Democratic Senate primary has been: Will it even matter in the fall? Neither candidate has tracked north of 20 percent in recent surveys placing them against general election candidates Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.
Bill Bucolo is a Pinellas County Democratic activist and head of the Pinellas Progressives. He seriously questions Greene's bona fides as a Democrat. "I won't back Greene because I don't believe he's for real," he says. "I believe he's been put in there as a distraction."
But it's exactly the fact that he's able to finance his own campaign so far (and would be able to do so in a general election) that is a positive for some Democrats, such as former St. Pete City Councilman Jay Lasita, who is the Tampa Bay coordinator for the Greene campaign.
"The fact that he does not have any connection to special corporate interests is very appealing to me," says Lasita, who says he's been an advocate for campaign financing his whole life. "Jeff is perfectly positioned to be a voice against the quid pro quo type of influence that corporate campaign money plays in the current political process."
The attention on personal attacks has come at the expense of policy discussion, but for the most part there isn't much daylight between the two candidates. Despite the perception that Meek is liberal, he's actually more centrist than Kathy Castor, Alan Grayson or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, to mention just a few members of Florida's Democratic Congressional delegation.
Greene has been more critical of the stimulus, but he takes the progressive point of view that it should have been larger. When CL asked Meek if he agreed that there's little to separate the two philosophically, he bristled. "I'm proven on my policy. Mr. Greene is just saying what he'd like to do if he's elected. That's the difference between the two of us."
Of course, such criticism can always be made of first-time candidates, but in some circles Greene doesn't get the benefit of the doubt from Florida Democrats because they don't know who he is. That's because he's lived most of his adult life outside the Sunshine State, and at least for one year of his life was a registered Republican, running for Congress under the GOP flag in Southern California in 1982.
Greene has ridden the anti-incumbent bandwagon from the get-go, emphasizing that while Meek is a product of a do-nothing Washington, he is a proven job creator.
Former St. Pete City Councilman Jay Lasita acknowledges that for all of Greene's millions, politics is also about personal relationships, and says that Greene hadn't had many encounters with rank-and-file Democrats until this year.
"To me, the late entry in the campaign is an issue," he says, regarding the fact that Greene didn't enter the race until June 18. "That's a late entry, and Jeff is putting the resources out to get his name ID out there and make himself a more viable candidate."
Recent reports suggest an exodus of Democrats flocking to vote for Charlie Crist in the fall if Greene becomes the nominee.
But Dan Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, downplays those reports as propaganda from the Meek campaign.
"Look, you have two nonentities, in terms of statewide recognition," he says of the two Democrats. "No one knew who Kendrick Meek was outside of Miami before the campaign, notwithstanding his trying to collect signatures by petition. No one knew who Jeff Greene was before he spent $8 million," and adds that both have high unfavorable numbers among Democrats.
If Meek ekes out a win on August 24, the question remains: Will he have any chance against Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist, one a darling of the conservative right, the other now raising thousands of dollars from Meek's own Democratic party base? Senior adviser Ana Cruz says it's way too early to project how voters will decide come November.
"Democrats aren't going anywhere," she insists. "There's a saying in politics: You fall in love in the primary and you fall in line in the general. Democrats are going to fall in line in the general election and we are going to win this primary race and win in November."
If so, it would be a pretty big upset. But for now, the Meek camp needs to survive a primary it never thought it would be in.
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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