Standing out in crowded U.S. House has been the challenge for would-be Sen. Kendrick Meek

WASHINGTON — If for some wild reason you weren't glued to C-SPAN at 11 p.m. on July 19, 2006, here's the replay: A congressman stands alone on the floor of the House of Representatives, rows of empty tan leather seats behind him, slamming his fist into a giant rubber stamp.

"We're going to drop it in the garbage can and burn it because this is not what this country (slam) is about. Democracy is about discourse (slam) and balance (slam) and accountability (slam) to the American people."

Night after night for two years, Rep. Kendrick Meek forcefully built a case that Democrats had a better vision for the country. The effort helped craft a message his party used in November 2006 to regain control of the House after 12 years of Republican rule.

Now Meek is trying to make the argument for himself. He wants to jump from representing a Miami congressional district in the U.S. House to representing the state in the U.S. Senate.

Those late-night speeches helped edge him in that direction. Most of America was asleep or getting its political fix from Jon Stewart, but Washington noticed.

"It established his reputation as a fighter," said Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican.

Nancy Pelosi, who became House speaker in the Democratic takeover, heralded Meek as emblematic of a wave of young leaders, and he quickly ascended the ranks, gaining a prestigious seat on the Ways and Means Committee.

But Meek, 43, has never fully assumed the starring role some thought was his destiny. After four terms, his legislative record tilts more toward rank-and-file than standout.

That reality confronts Meek as he strains for attention in a race dominated by better known and more well-financed opponents who question his effectiveness.

Even some of his strongest advocates wonder why he would so quickly give up an ultrasafe House seat — and the chance to fulfill the promise Pelosi saw — for a long shot Senate run.

Meek wondered, too. A month before getting in the race, he sat at a table at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach and asked a confidante if he had a solid enough track record, if it was too soon.

Rep. Alcee Hastings was unequivocal: "The time is right now."

Hastings, D-Miramar, said Meek has solid congressional experience — something no one else in Senate race has — but also has the youth to set off on a long career in the upper chamber.

To Meek, it comes down to simple math. "Going to the U.S. Senate is going to bring about a better opportunity for me to give a voice to Floridians and bring resources back. One senator can make a world of difference. "

• • •

Meek had an easy route to congress. His mother, Carrie Meek, Florida's first black member of Congress since Reconstruction, ensured his victory in 2002 by waiting until the last minute to announce her retirement. Howls of protest followed, but Kendrick won easily and he has faced little or no opposition since. He came in with instant recognition, his mother a revered member of the institution.

He soon tried to replicate his success in the state Legislature (where he also followed his mother's footsteps) by introducing a bill to provide matching grants to states with class-size reduction plans. As a Florida senator, Meek had spearheaded the successful drive to amend the Constitution and require smaller class sizes.

The amendment serves as a stark reminder of the limits of a congressional seat. He has never come close to the same success. He has been the primary sponsor of more than 70 bills and nothing major has passed.

"He's a failed career politician," said Jeff Greene, a billionaire who made a late entry in the Democratic primary and has spent millions on TV ads attacking Meek.

And yet, most House members toil for years without passing a substantial piece of legislation. Victories are achieved by attaching ideas to other bills, usually bearing the names of committee chairs, or plying other channels.

Meek has assembled a hefty dossier that serves as the backbone of his campaign narrative as an accomplished workhorse:

• He has been a leading voice for Haitian Americans, who are more heavily represented in his district than any other in Congress. Meek points to help he marshaled after the island was rocked by hurricanes and earthquakes.

• He pushed for a mortgage fraud task force in a housing bill signed by the president last year.

• He used his position on Ways and Means to push for funding for community health care centers, and he has helped Miami-Dade County and other local governments offset costly contract withholding requirements.

Meek sided with his party 98 percent of the time in the current Congress. He voted for the stimulus, an energy bill that included a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse emissions and the health care overhaul.

He is not a back-bencher by any means, but in a group of 435 members, it is hard to be distinguished. That accounts for the difficulty Meek faces now and the soft embrace he has received from the Democratic machine.

"It's tough for any junior member to get traction unless you decide to throw rocks or set off cherry bombs," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "What Meek did was build a strong reputation as a diligent, attractive, articulate, nose-to-the-grindstone team player. That's a great route to build a career in the body. But it doesn't make it the best way to break out if you're going to run in a big state like Florida."

• • •

Many Democrats think Meek should stick around to grow into his own role.

"I urged him not to run," said Steve Geller, a former state legislator from South Florida. "Not because he wouldn't make a good senator. But I thought he would keep that seat for as long as he wanted and would continue to rise in power and importance. He and Debbie are some of the true rising stars."

Debbie is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schutz, another South Florida Democrat. Her career path provides a study in contrasts. Elected in 2004, she joined Meek in the "30-Something Working Group," whose focus included the late-night floor speeches on C-SPAN. She also drew Pelosi's attention.

Today, Wasserman Schultz is a ranking budget "cardinal" and a key player in the Democrats' election effort, raising significant funds and doing grunt work to cultivate candidates. A constant presence on cable news shows, her profile has risen enough that many consider her a future House speaker. She seems content to put in the time to reach that level.

Wasserman Schultz, a longtime ally of Meek's, said he has the ingredients to make the move statewide, calling him one of the "most tenacious'' people she knows.

Meek, too, has been involved in campaign efforts and, with no real opponents, has been free to raise boatloads of money. He has given more than $1 million to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

His fundraising has sometimes generated unwanted publicity. An investigation by Roll Call in 2007 revealed that Meek had spent about $80,000 at fine restaurants, including 47 transactions at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Washington, D.C.

"To be part of the discussion and the art of politics is going to cost money," Meek said at the time. The expenditures were legal, but belie the everyman image he strikes as candidate.

Meek's political clout grew when he became Florida chairman of John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. Four years later, he was a key player for Hillary Clinton. He spent three years as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

As prominent as they were, the political posts have fueled a perception that Meek has neglected concerns back in Miami. Congressional District 17 is among the neediest anywhere, poor and dotted with crime and blight, so the bar is high.

"His direction is not my direction. It's not what I'd want for the community," said Gary Johnson, a local clergy leader. "I think it's more toward him moving up in the ranks. It's self-driven."

Meek points to a long list of appropriations — "earmarks" in Washington argot — he got for the district, most recently $600,000 for the Overtown Youth Center and $500,000 for a cancer screening program geared toward Haitians. He has helped obtain millions of dollars for transportation projects and colleges.

Georgia Ayers, a neighborhood activist, said some of Meek's greatest contributions go unnoticed, like the suit he bought for the father of a 9-year-old girl shot and killed in Liberty City.

Greene, his opponent, traveled to Meek's district this month and pledged to end earmarks "once and for all." But the ability to bring home money is often how members of congress are evaluated. It's a risky balance.

In 2004, Meek secured a $72,750 earmark for a proposed biopharmaceutical complex in Liberty City. He sought $4 million more in 2006, though was unsuccessful. Poinciana Industrial Park was never built and the developer, Dennis Stackhouse, is awaiting trial, accused of stealing nearly $1 million.

Stackhouse was a political contributor to Meek, hired Carrie Meek as a consultant and gave her a Cadillac Escalade. Kendrick Meek has said he was only trying to bring jobs to the district, and denied family ties had anything to do with his support. Greene is making it a central issue of the primary and it will surely surface if he makes it into the general election.

• • •

Meek leaned back in his chair, kicked up his feet, revealing a brown pair of cowboy boots, and let out a big laugh.

"Anything positive you want to ask me about?" he asked a visitor, tiring of questions about special interests and campaign contributions. "I'm just saying, 'Okay, am I a good guy?' "

Meek attributes the scrutiny to election-year politics. Indeed, his opponents have thick reports detailing votes against tax cuts and for bank bailouts, and sprawling budgets. And he pushes back with his own script, calling himself the "voice of the middle class."

He harkened back to those long nights on the floor, standing in a mostly empty House chamber, talking to anyone who was watching on C-SPAN.

"After we work hard and we beat a billionaire … it will send a very strong message to everyone in the state of Florida that we are a real campaign and that I am the best person to be the next U.S. senator from the state of Florida."

Times staff writer Alex Holt and Miami Herald reporter Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Standing out in crowded U.S. House has been the challenge for would-be Sen. Kendrick Meek 07/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 26, 2010 11:03am]

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