ORLANDO — In a pool hall lit by Budweiser lamps and big-screen TVs, U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek and a few union leaders from the nearby Lockheed Martin plant bonded over buffalo wings.
The Miami representative with a taste for steakhouses and cigars serves on a powerful tax-writing House committee. He has flown on Air Force One and was recently spotted getting a pedicure at a Washington salon. But in an anti-incumbent election year, Meek is emphasizing other parts of his resume: his working-class roots, love of fishing and hunting, even his dyslexia.
As he told the union guys, "Remember, I used to be a state trooper. I used to be a skycap." Meek, 43, worked for the Florida Highway Patrol and at Miami International Airport before he began a career in public office in 1994. His message: You can talk to me.
Last week his everyman-themed campaign for admission to the most exclusive political club in America took him from the Orlando sports bar to a Tallahassee food bank to a Mulberry phosphate plant. As the media obsesses over the Republican primary between Gov. Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio, the leading Democratic contender has been trudging across the state longer than any other major Senate candidate.
The GOP bloodletting prompted one Capitol Hill newspaper to change the race's description from "lean Republican" to "tossup." Still, Meek is expected to be overshadowed until after the Aug. 24 primary, leaving his campaign just 10 weeks to blanket the nation's fourth-largest state.
"It is difficult to imagine Meek winning in November," political analyst Stuart Rothenberg recently wrote on his Web site, echoing a pervasive view in Washington. "While he will talk often about his years in the Florida Highway Patrol, his record is relatively liberal … and the recently enacted health care bill has received a very chilly reception in the state."
The union bosses in Orlando told Meek they hear the law could add $30 million to their health care costs. "There's a fear of what's going to happen down the road," said Scott Reid, the local UAW union president.
Meek said skepticism toward the new law will fade as rumored death panels and free insurance for illegal immigrants don't materialize. "We have to get out into the highways and byways to show what's in the bill and what's not in the bill," he said.
While he has not wavered in support for the law, Meek carefully labels himself as a ''moderate progressive" and points out his disagreements with the Democratic administration on Israel, Cuba and NASA funding. Last week, he declined to sign a letter from three liberal Democratic colleagues against a proposed offshore drilling plan because their criticism was too "strong."
When he votes, though, Meek rarely strays from the party line. He has voted with the Democratic majority more than 98 percent of the time since it took over Congress in 2006, according to a Washington Post analysis.
The Republican line of attack is obvious: Meek is a taxing-and-spending, health care-meddling, deficit-increasing South Florida liberal, not to mention a gridlock-imposing representative tied to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Unlike most candidates, Meek usually carries his own bags and takes the wheel on campaign road trips, driving a solid 80 mph on the highway. He recalled that an opponent in his first race ripped him for having four speeding tickets, two traffic citations and a license suspension.
"Every ticket I got in college was from the Florida Highway Patrol," he said. "I figured if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."
Though he left the force in 1994, Meek talks about it like he turned in his badge last month. A campaign brochure features a photo of his 1989 swearing-in.
"It's just like someone who served in the military who calls himself a former Marine. Once you serve in the Highway Patrol …" Meek said, noting that he arrested 300 drunken drivers.
Meek talked little about the trappings of Capitol Hill during last week's road trip, rhapsodizing instead about the $11 khakis he bought at Ross, the free breakfasts at the Hampton Inn, and the joys of Chick-fil-A and Arby's.
He said he doesn't want to brag about the guns he owns, but he eagerly pulled out his hunting license and mentioned the fishing gear in the trunk, and jokes about his size 15 shoes.
"He's a regular guy. He's an everyday guy," said his wife, Leslie, an administrative law judge and former lobbyist, in a new campaign video. Their two children do go to private school.
It's practically Florida political lore that Meek and his two sisters were raised in inner-city Miami by a single mother, Carrie Meek, who became one of the first black members of Congress from Florida since Reconstruction. Kendrick Meek succeeded his mother in Congress in 2002. The video also reveals lesser-known facets of Meek's life, like his lifelong struggle with dyslexia.
Among the other images of Meek in the video: a bushy-haired preschooler, a 6-foot-3 college football player, a father with his family at the park, a race car-sponsoring NASCAR fan. Voters won't see the stogie-chomping Meek posing in a 2008 feature story in Cigar Aficionado magazine, raising money at tony receptions hosted by former President Bill Clinton, or huddling with Pelosi.
"It's obvious that I am a congressman," he said, explaining the video's focus. "We're trying to introduce me to the people of Florida who do not know me, who do not know of my past."
Meek has not faced a serious opponent in years, though he solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars for his re-election bids. He used some of that to pick up checks for swanky dinners with other lawmakers and Washington insiders, which he called a necessary expense for building relationships.
For this race, Meek had about $3.4 million by Dec. 31, the most recent total available, and has gathered about 140,000 voter signatures to qualify for the ballot instead of paying a fee.
On the drive to Orlando, with only a faint glow of pink left in the darkening sky, Meek pointed out prime fishing waters.
"I'm not one of those folks who tries to re-create themselves for statewide office because they think that's the way to get the trust of their future constituents," he said. "I believe we win because people vote for me as a person."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The two children of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek attend private school. The article incorrectly described the school.