ST. PETERSBURG — For two candidates who disagree on so little, it's striking that Jeff Greene and Kendrick Meek can loathe each other so much.
The animosity between the U.S. Senate Democratic primary candidates was abundantly clear in a combative debate Sunday that will be televised on Bay News 9 tonight.
The billionaire "outsider," Greene, cast his opponent as Exhibit A of Washington's "culture of corruption," while a livid U.S. Rep. Meek slammed Greene as an untrustworthy phony.
"It's a clear choice,'' said Greene, a Palm Beach real estate mogul, who emerged from nowhere to become the front-runner after spending millions on TV ads. "He's a career politician, involved in some corruption scandals, taking special interest money. … I'm an outsider. My whole life I've been in the business world, I've created jobs. … I'm not going to take a penny of special interest money."
Said Meek: "It's ridiculous that someone would even question my ethics when he has so many issues himself."
Greene criticized Meek for proposing earmarks and taking political contributions from special interests ranging from tobacco companies to BP.
"You are a special interest" retorted Meek, noting that Greene's vast investment portfolio includes plenty of oil interests.
The two leading Democrats agreed that Arizona's tough immigration law is a mistake, that the TARP bailout program was necessary, and that offshore drilling should be banned near Florida. They each essentially called the other unfit to serve.
After Greene declared himself firmly in support of the Cuba embargo, Meek jumped on a Sunday St. Petersburg Times story that noted Greene went to Cuba in 2007 on his 145-foot yacht Summerwind, where crew members recalled extensive partying.
"I don't know if I need to slide my chair over, because a bolt of lightning may come in and hit Jeff,'' Meek scoffed. "You're saying you weren't on your yacht, when it went to Cuba and eyewitnesses said you were on the yacht?"
"No," Greene responded. "I went to Cuba years ago on a Jewish mission to Cuba, yes, for the Jewish community."
"Were you on the yacht when it was reported …" Meek pressed.
"No, not that time … I was not on the yacht on the trip you're talking about. I was on the yacht on another time when I had a visa to go there and visit the Jewish community," Greene stammered as Meek cross-examined him.
Greene said during the debate he hadn't been to Cuba in probably five years but later acknowledged it may have been 2007.
The Greene campaign on Sunday also confirmed that its original media consultant, Joe Trippi, is no longer working for the campaign, and that a new campaign manager — the third change in roughly three weeks — was coming aboard.
Meek, 43, was aggressive and confident, which shouldn't be surprising for a 15-year-politician and son of former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek.
More surprising was that Greene, 55, was equally as confident and polished.
Challenging Meek's loyalty to the party, Greene called on the Miami Democrat to join him in committing to endorse the ultimate Democratic nominee.
"I'm ahead in the polls," Greene noted. "So who is he going to support? Charlie Crist or Marco Rubio?"
"I'm not going to support Charlie Crist or Marco Rubio, because I'm going to be the nominee, Jeff,'' snapped Meek, noting that Greene ran for Congress as a Republican in 1982 and recently claimed not to remember whether he'd voted for Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter for president.
Meek faced questions about his ties to Dennis Stackhouse, a developer facing criminal charges relating to a failed Miami project to which Meek steered federal funding and who had paid tens of thousands to Carrie Meek for consulting.
"Dennis Stackhouse duped an entire community,'' Meek said. "My mother did not do anything wrong. I didn't do anything wrong. … Mr. Greene is continuing to be so negative because he's light on ideas, he's light on a track record."
Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]