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The women behind the men who would be Florida's senator

Florida's Senate race is about four men elbowing each other in a fierce bid to join the most powerful legislative branch in the United States.

But behind the candidates' nasty accusations are four spouses with mirror ambitions. They are their husbands' ultimate political accessories, the lapel flag in human form: slim legs, coiffed hair, dazzling smiles, a walking thesaurus of their spouses' winning attributes.

Carole Crist. Mei Greene. Leslie Meek. Jeanette Dousdebes-Rubio.

One of these women will go to D.C. with her husband after he is elected in November. She will be invited to lunches with Michelle Obama, Bible studies and book clubs organized by Senate spouses and elaborate dinner parties where she will be expected to look chic and be charming as lobbyists, world leaders and industry giants line up to shake her husband's hand.

"Life is going to change. There is no question about it," said Connie Schultz, author of the book . . . and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man and wife of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. "Your husband, if he gets elected, is one of the more powerful people in the country. That comes with a lot of responsibility. No matter what you do for a living, in many circles you will simply be his wife."

It is not an entirely foreign concept for the spouses of Florida's Senate candidates, women long accustomed to seeing the names of their influential husbands in headlines.

"This is a family effort and it has always been a family effort," said Leslie Meek, who took a sabbatical from her job to champion Kendrick Meek's candidacy. "I'm there to support my husband."

Leslie Meek

In some ways, Leslie Meek, 45, is most poised to sashay into the role of Senate wife.

After her husband was elected in 2002 to succeed his mother in the U.S. House of Representatives, Leslie enrolled her two children in Washington schools and secured a job as an administrative judge over benefit entitlement hearings for the District of Columbia's Department of Employment Services.

Only after she beat out a handful of women to become chair of the Congressional Black Caucus' spouses group did her husband run for the same title within the main organization.

Ayah Wilson, who was hired by Leslie to serve as program coordinator for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said she was "a hard person to work for." "She is a mom, she is a judge, she is a chair of the spouses, and she needs to know her team could run a well-oiled machine.

"She doesn't beat around the bush," Wilson said. "She'll tell you, 'Girl, you need to get that spinach out of your teeth, we have a meeting.' "

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Chicago and New York, Leslie attended historically black Fisk University in Nashville before eventually relocating to Florida to grow her legal career. She became an assistant attorney in Miami under Janet Reno. There, she met Kendrick Meek, a state trooper.

The pair was named the top power couple by Washington Life magazine this year, trumping Attorney General Eric Holder and his wife, obstetrician Sharon Malone, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao.

Like her husband, Leslie has a campaign platform. As a Senate wife, she plans to launch a national effort to help returning troops transition into civilian life.

"Maybe there are more resources over there," she mused. "Maybe people give you more deference because you are a senator's wife."

Carole Crist

She had been married barely two months when she found herself seated next to President Barack Obama during a White House dinner.

"It was extraordinary," said Carole Crist, 40, a New York native.

Florida's first lady is no glamor novice. She owns a 3,690-square-foot condo on a private Miami island, has greeted the king and queen of Spain and stays with Real Housewives of New York reality star Jill Zarin when she visits the Hamptons.

But the gritty world of politics was an alien land when she met Charlie Crist. They married in a St. Petersburg church in December 2008. Months later, he announced his Senate candidacy.

In her first marriage, Carole walked down the aisle with the executive of a lucrative private jet company in New York. She ran her family's costume business in Queens and cared for two daughters. She moved to Florida in 2006, when her marriage was in trouble.

In her second marriage, Carole has stood by her husband's side at oil-ravaged beaches and shaken hands at campaign stops at elderly homes, hospitals and law enforcement meetings.

"We try to be together as much as possible because I absolutely love and adore him and I am happiest when I am with him," said Carole, who monitors the family company by telephone.

A low-profile first lady, she doesn't push a personal agenda or orchestrate charity campaigns or demand elaborate galas.

In D.C., where she attended Georgetown, she would be closer to her family, her friends, "a bonus."

"I love this life," she said.

Mei Greene

Her union with billionaire Jeff Greene drew movie giants and earned a New York Times wedding review. Mike Tyson was the best man, but don't ask her about him.

Mei Sze Chan came to New York after graduating from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She dabbled in real estate, but her focus lay elsewhere.

The couple met at a party at a time when she was a socialite known for belly-bearing shirts and thigh-grazing skirts. The 2007 marriage brought her to Florida, a new home base from which to flee for parties in Los Angeles and New York. As his date, she wears stylish but conservative clothes that cover her chest, stomach and inner thighs.

She never legally changed her name, but prefers to be called Mei Greene. She gave birth to their first child, Malcolm, last year. The baby was barely 6 months old in April when his father announced he was running.

"He is very passionate about how he feels about the country," Mei said. "I should have seen it coming. I didn't really think about it, in terms of being in the industry."

Her husband, 20 years her senior, is her partner in every sense, she said. Mei interviewed campaign staff and organized the campaign's call center. When Malcolm naps, she steps out on the campaign trail: a whistle stop in Cape Canaveral, a Democratic Party dinner in Miami. Most recently, at a motivational tea party for schoolgirls hosted by the Embrace Girls Foundation in Miami, the children politely acknowledged the middle-aged aspiring politician, but peppered his 35-year-old wife with questions.

"It was the fact that she was the wife of a senatorial candidate," said Melba Pearson, who organized the event. "It's basically like being the wife of a celebrity."

But Jeff Greene won't have his wife's vote. Mei, an Australian citizen, is still working her way through the U.S. citizen application process.

Jeanette Dousdebes-Rubio

Marco Rubio's wife is a rare sight on the trail. In campaign advertisements, her face is half obscured by a crown of blond hair and the frenetic limbs of her squirming sons.

Jeanette Dousdebes-Rubio does not give speeches. She does not like crowds. She would rather be with her children.

The Rubios both attended South Miami High School, but they didn't meet until a neighborhood party when she was 17 and he was 19. He teased her. She thought he was funny.

She worked as a bank teller, then joined the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders with her younger sister in 1997. She posed for the squad's first swimsuit calender and practiced dance moves up to four nights a week. On game days, Rubio cheered her on from the stands.

"She was just a wonderful person. She has kind of a calm personality, very easygoing," said Dorie Grogan, senior director of entertainment, who was brought on to sex up the cheerleaders in 1996. "He seemed like a supportive, really nice boyfriend."

Jeanette ditched the team a year later and married Rubio. She wanted to be a fashion designer, but unexpectedly became pregnant. She thought they would have three kids at most.

They had two daughters, then two sons. Now 36, she leads a weekly women's Bible group from her house and stays at home with the children.

When her husband announced he was running for the Senate, she asked him to be sure he was doing it for the right reasons.

"We talked about the good and the bad that comes along with politics," she said. "I don't think you are ever really prepared, but you always know what it comes with."

In D.C. she'll miss her network of friends and family.

"If someone would have told me my life would have played out the way it is now, I would have said, 'Get out of here,' " she said.

•••

The balance of family and public life can be difficult terrain in D.C. under the shadow of an unpredictable work schedule and a relentless press corps.

"I learned during the first campaign that I was a single parent at that point," said Joyce Bennett, wife of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. "You never know when he is going to come home. You can never plan a dinner."

Bennett leads Spouses of the Senate, a social and support group.

"Basically, we meet for lunch and donate money to the Red Cross," Bennett said. "It's some people we can talk to that understand our lifestyles because it is really crazy. You have one foot in one city and one foot in your home state and you are bouncing around like a yo-yo."

But sometimes it is better for the spouse to stay home, during and after the election.

If she is anything but perfect, the wife can be a distraction, said Darryl Paulson, a retired political scientist from the University of South Florida. But if she appears attractive and well-mannered, that might just spell victory.

"You can't ask for more in a campaign spouse," he said.

Carole, who is both pretty and pleasant, but often wary of the press, said voters can expect to hear her laud Crist more regularly as the campaign enters its final days.

"If it can be helpful, I am happy to share," she said. "There is nobody closer. He is my husband."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

The women behind the men who would be Florida's senator 07/31/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 9:42pm]

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