ORLANDO — Jeff Greene and Kendrick Meek used their only statewide televised debate Tuesday to blast each other's character and credentials while complaining about negative attacks.
"I was brought up as a kid that if you have nothing good to say you say nothing at all," billionaire Palm Beach real estate mogul Greene said, wasting no time in calling Meek a failed career politician and part of the "culture of corruption."
U.S. Rep. Meek in turn called Greene "a bad man," who mistreats employees, has little track record as a Democrat or Floridian and plenty of shady business dealings: "I have more integrity in my pinky than you have in your whole body."
The 60-minute debate sponsored by the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida was the second between the two Democrats before the Aug. 24 primary. Recent polls point to a neck-and-neck race for the nomination, and Tuesday's debate produced no clear winner.
If anything, both candidates were losers in the minds of any voter tired of negative politics. Meek's weakest moment came when he struggled to identify any major accomplishment he had spearheaded during his eight years in Congress.
"Of the 70 bills he authored, not one of them has passed. I am a businessman who knows how to get results," said Greene, 55, who made hundreds of millions betting on the subprime mortgage market imploding.
Meek accused Greene of profiting off the country's economic misery and opting not to warn Washington and Wall Street leaders about the looming crisis.
"Why didn't you go to your two United States senators in California," Meek asked Greene, who moved to Florida less than three years ago. "You're a man of wealth, you're a man of influence, you're a man of power. … You decided to profit first and then go on national television and gloat about the money you made."
"I wasn't a genius. It was on the front page of Time magazine: Housing bust coming. It was on the front page of the Economist: Housing market crumbling," Greene responded. "Guys like you were just part of the party. You were getting money from all these (Wall Street firms) and failed to regulate them."
There is little daylight between the two Democrats on major issues. They agreed on not extending President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, banning offshore oil drilling and maintaining the current retirement age for Social Security. Both were equally vague about how they would make Social Security solvent.
The main point of contention between Meek and Greene boils down to which one is dirtier.
"Your life is a question mark and every day we learn about your business dealings and how you treat your employees. You have more versions of why you went to Cuba than Baskin-Robbins has flavors of ice cream," Meek said, referring to Greene's explanations for why he took his 145-foot yacht to Cuba in 2007.
Greene says he went to Cuba merely because his yacht, Summerwind, needed repairs for a diving trip. On Tuesday he produced receipts for yacht parts and an attorney's letter saying no law was violated based on how Greene explained the trip.
Greene has repeatedly highlighted Meek's connection to a Miami developer facing criminal charges who had paid Meek's mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, $90,000 as a consultant and gave her a Cadillac Escalade. Meek sought federal earmarks for the developer's inner-city project, and said his efforts were about reviving a blighted neighborhood and had nothing to do with his mother.
Greene called on Meek to follow the lead of embattled Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., in asking for an House ethics probe into his connection with the Miami developer.
"If nothing's wrong, why wouldn't you ask for an ethics commission to clear your name," Greene asked.
Responded Meek, "If they felt anything was wrong, I would have been before the ethics committee long ago."
The billionaire real estate investor in turn was on the defensive about a real estate deal detailed in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald in which Greene made about $21 million selling condo units for a buyer now facing criminal charges after every unit defaulted and lenders lost millions.
"I was a victim," Greene said, dismissing Meek's suggestion that he "enabled fraud" by signing hundreds of blank deeds that were filled out by straw buyers. "It's very different when you sell a building to a guy and he turns out to be a crook."
Greene has spent more than $10 million on the campaign compared to roughly $4 million by Meek, but he suggested he's the underdog.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.