U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek readily admits he would not be where he is today without his mother.
The twice-divorced mother of three rose from riot-torn Miami to become one of Florida's first black members of Congress since Reconstruction. Now the son, who took her seat, is waging a historic campaign to be the state's first black U.S. senator.
"She's the woman that I give all of the credit," Meek recently told a hotel ballroom full of Democratic activists and politicians. "The reason why I'm in public service."
Carrie Meek could also be the reason — at least partly — for the end of his political career.
His bare-knuckled and deep-pocketed opponent in the Democratic primary, real estate mogul Jeff Greene, has been pummeling Meek over his family's ties to a developer charged with extensive fraud. Meek sought millions of federal dollars for a developer who had paid his mother a consulting fee of $90,000 and gave her a Cadillac Escalade.
"It cuts both ways. He gets the advantages of being her son, and he carries the weight of being her son," said former Florida International University professor Marvin Dunn, who wrote a definitive account of the black community in Miami. "The attacks are nasty but effective, and for people who don't have a clue who Kendrick Meek is, that's enough to sink the political ship."
Meek has said he didn't know Dennis Stackhouse paid his mother and that he was trying to foster economic development in a blighted neighborhood. In perhaps the most dramatic moment of an increasingly nasty race, Meek demanded of Greene during a June 22 debate: ''How dare you attack the character of my mother!''
"He was conditioned for times such as this," said his wife, Leslie Meek, wearing her husband's dark blazer over her dress at a campaign event. "The man had dyslexia at a time when people didn't know what that was. People think he was born with a silver spoon, but he was born with special needs to a single mother."
Meek refused to make his mother available for an interview with the Miami Herald, despite her major role in his campaign and Greene's use of her photo in his latest attack on statewide television.
"It does pain her for anyone to depict her as part of the problem," said Meek, who frequently refers to his mother in the third person. "People that know her as a trailblazer know her for who she is, not that she was a consultant for a developer. When you're 84, you don't want that to be the lasting image of your contributions to the community."
• • •
Meek said his mother has given up lobbying. Her contract to represent Miami-Dade County in Washington was not renewed in February.
Meek talked about his mother while driving past many of his childhood haunts in Liberty City: the grocery store where constituents would approach the congresswoman for help with a past-due electric bill; the Miami-Dade College campus where he horseplayed in the hallways and napped on the couches while she worked as an administrator; the canals where his largely absent father taught him to fish; the crumbling wall that separated their black neighborhood from the white part of town.
Carrie Meek's influence is pervasive throughout her youngest child's life, though the 43-year-old father of two teenagers said tersely, "The milk is dry from around my mouth by now."
She was a basketball and track star at Florida A&M University. He was a 6-foot-2 linebacker who went to his mother's alma mater on scholarship. Joining the Florida Highway Patrol was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, nurtured by his mother who signed him up for the Opa-locka Police Department's "explorer club."
After only two years as a trooper, when his mother was a state senator, Gov. Lawton Chiles tapped Meek to handle security for Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. Meek jumped over two ranks to become the patrol's first African-American captain, and, at 24, the youngest in the country.
"Kendrick gave me an opportunity to break the color barrier in the Highway Patrol, and the way he handled it made it go very smoothly," MacKay said. "The fact that he was Carrie Meek's son helped, but he had amassed a pretty good record as a trooper."
Meek said he met Chiles while volunteering on his 1990 campaign and had asked for the promotion himself. He made one of the most important connections of his political career as a member of the governor's security detail when he met then-President Bill Clinton, who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his Senate bid.
• • •
In 1994, unable to resist the pull of public service after five years as a trooper, Meek resigned to run for the Florida House. His mother's political network helped him outraise his rivals several times over.
"The one thing that stands out for me is that from the very beginning, when I first sat down to work with him, was that he wanted to pay respect to his mother, but also establish that he was his own man," said public relations consultant Ric Katz, who ran Meek's first campaign.
The young lawmaker spearheaded legislation to compensate two black men, Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, wrongfully sent to death row for the murders of two white gas station workers in a small Panhandle town. But Meek didn't make a name for himself until 2000, when as a state senator, he protested former Gov. Jeb Bush's order eliminating affirmative action in state contracts and university admissions.
Meek and former Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville led a 25-hour sit-in that later culminated in a march to the Capitol and a statewide campaign to register black voters. In a telling sign that Meek was coming into his own, his mother first heard of the overnight protest in the governor's office not from her son — who typically calls her at least once a day — but from a fellow member of Congress.
"When he sat down in the governor's office, that was the moment he distinguished himself," said Monica Russo, president of the SEIU health care workers' union and a longtime Meek ally. "He put it all on the line when he could have coasted."
Meek scored another political victory and cemented his status as a thorn in Bush's side when he successfully led a grass roots campaign to limit classroom sizes. The powerful Republican governor fiercely opposed the amendment to the state Constitution, which voters will have the option of watering down in the Nov. 2 election.
"Bush was like a Category 5 hurricane at that time," Meek recalled. "I've definitely earned the trust of the voters for being a leader."
• • •
His mother's abrupt decision to retire less than two weeks before the deadline to become a candidate in the 2002 election revived criticism of Meek as a coattail rider.
She made the announcement from her church pulpit on a Sunday morning. She and Meek embraced in the front pew, and he began campaigning for her seat that day. He has won re-election three times with only token opposition, if any.
By Capitol Hill standards, public office has made Meek comfortable, but not rich. He and his wife have owned the same home in Miami Gardens since 1999. In 2004, they bought a three-bedroom home for $464,000 in Washington, where his wife works as an administrative judge and his children attend private school. Financial records also show a student loan, a hybrid Ford Escape and a minivan.
Unlike his mother, who served on the House Appropriations Committee and was known for cajoling millions of dollars to Miami-Dade, Meek chose the more policy-driven House Ways and Means Committee. It oversees the tax code, Medicare and Social Security.
A foot soldier for Nancy Pelosi who nearly always votes with his party, Meek chaired John Kerry's presidential campaign in Florida in 2004 and stumped all over the country for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 alongside former President Clinton.
Some constituents back home say he has become too much of a political climber, too much a creature of Washington. Referring to the 1966 federal program to revitalize urban neighborhoods, Liberty City activist Kathy Giddarie said, "They're still calling this Model City. . . . A model of what? A model of poverty? I think Meek's only concern is with his political gain. You have to be in it and of it to understand it."
Other residents say Meek hasn't forgotten his roots. Jumbo's, which in 1966 became one of the first restaurants in Miami to serve black diners indoors, displays a resolution Meek entered into the Congressional Record on its 50th anniversary in 2005.
"I'd rather he stayed to be our U.S. congressman," acknowledged owner Bobby Flam, as Meek put up a sign for his Senate campaign out front. "We know him around here. . . . This guy is not a phony."
• • •
When a killer earthquake struck Haiti, homeland to thousands of his constituents, and there was no way to fly into the country, Meek found a way. He hired the brother of a friend's hairdresser to drive him from the airport in the Dominican Republic over rocky roads to Port-au-Prince, where he arrived unannounced at the American Embassy and slept on a cot.
"If I have a brother in arms, a brother in the causes that matter to us and who represents more closely the values and reasons I ran for office in the first place, it's Kendrick Meek," his colleague in Congress, Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, recently told Jewish community leaders in Aventura.
His opponent paints a much darker picture. "Too corrupt for Florida," sneers a recent mailing to voters that details Meek's connection to the developer Dennis Stackhouse.
Meek sought $4 million in federal funds for his proposed high-tech park in one of the most downtrodden neighborhoods in Miami. The development was never built, and Stackhouse was charged with making off with about $1 million in private and public loans.
Meek has said that he didn't know Stackhouse paid his mother $90,000 and gave his chief of staff $13,000 to help him buy a house.
"I did what I had to do as a representative of this community to bring resources and jobs here," Kendrick Meek said.
But the polls show Greene's attacks taking a toll. The latest Quinnipiac University survey found Meek had fallen 10 percentage points behind. After 18 months on the campaign trail, longer than any other major candidate, more than half of the voters said they don't know enough about Meek to form an opinion.
"Truthfully, I never really knew Kendrick Meek," said Frank Pumilia, president of the Margate Democratic Club in northwest Broward County, who said he is hosting a luncheon for Greene. "I don't think he's made such a great mark in Congress. I think his mother did more than he ever did."
Beth Reinhard can be reached at [email protected]