There is a saying about academic politics that the debates are so intense because the stakes are so small. It could also be applied to the Florida Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
The candidates, Rep. Kendrick Meek and billionaire Jeff Greene hurl insults daily at each other. But with the no-party candidacy of Gov. Charlie Crist attracting a wealth of support from Democrats and independents, either candidate stands a distant third to either Crist or Republican Marco Rubio, according to numerous polls released on the Senate race.
Polling has shown that Crist — who was a Republican until April — is so far the choice of most Democrats. In late July, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey showed that 52 percent of Democrats said they would vote for Crist if Greene was the nominee and 44 percent said they would vote for the Florida governor if Rep. Meek was the nominee.
But neither Greene nor Meek consider the campaign over — on the contrary, both are fighting vigorously for the Democratic nomination on Aug. 24. Rep. Meek announced he was running for Senate way back in January 2009 and began campaigning that April. From the start, he has been considered a weak candidate. In October 2009, Meek said at the Florida Democratic Convention, “I will tell you regardless of what you may hear, what they may say, what they may do in the future, we will win this race.” Yet, this was said to a mostly empty ballroom, reported the St. Petersburg Times.
“I’m excited about Alex [Sink, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor]. I’m undecided about Kendrick,” said one Miami Democrat at the convention, reflecting the Democratic mood in Florida.
Entering the race in April 2010, billionaire Jeff Greene, who made his fortune on real estate and, most recently, credit-default swaps. Until April 2008, he lived in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The candidates don’t like each other much. “He is a bad man, OK?” said Meek on his statewide bus tour to gain grassroots support, “The Real Dem Express,” which in and of itself is a swipe at Crist and Greene. The latter ran for Congress in 1982 as a Republican in Southern California. Greene’s spokesman, Luis Vizcaino, replied quickly and called Meek “a hypocrite” for refusing to say whether he would support Greene if he won and dubbed Meek’s bus tour “The Crooked Express,” and said he should drive straight to the Congressional Ethics Committee.
Since they hold very similar positions on all issues, both candidates have zeroed in on each other’s past. In fact, the entire primary has almost been devoid of fights over any issues. And neither candidate has a substantial record. Greene has never held elected office. Though Meek has been a congressman since 2003, his tenure in Congress has been described as mostly a rank-and-file role and he struggled to name one accomplishment he made in the House of Representatives in Tuesday night’s debate.
Fort Greene, in the absence of having held political office, it is his yacht, the Summerwind, that is his record. The most potent accusation is that Greene traveled to Cuba in defiance of the travel ban, which is considered extremely offensive among some Cuban-Americans in Florida, who see traveling to Cuba as an endorsement of the Castro regime. Greene said in a debate that he was on a Jewish humanitarian mission to visit synagogues on the island. Then his campaign said he was on the boat but it only traveled to Cuba because of a “hydraulic problem.” His campaign now says that he traveled to Cuba because of a hydraulic problem and visited some Jewish synagogues while he was there. Other accusations include that the dropping of the 145-foot yacht’s anchor destroyed a coral reef that the U.N. recognized for being fragile and environmentally unique in Belize, and that the best man at his wedding, Mike Tyson, used cocaine while on the boat, as he said — as a now-sober vegan — in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
Meek tore into the Cuban issue in a debate. “I understand humanitarian missions. … We’re talking about your yacht on a party mission,” said Meek. Greene, while saying he supported the travel embargo said, “I was not on the yacht on the trip you’re talking about. I was on the yacht another time when I had a visa.”
Greene constantly refers to the Miami congressman as a corrupt politician. This week, Greene tied Meek to another African-American congressman representing a heavily urban, Democratic district, Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y. Meek has received $5,500 from Rangel. “It is very important we preserve the integrity of the House of Representatives,” said Greene. “Kendrick Meek is protecting the culture of corruption and bribery.”
Meek has been listed by CREW as one of the “Crooked Candidates” for 2010, in particular for his involvement with indicted South Florida Developer Dennis Stackhouse. Meek got a $72,750 earmark for a biopharmaceutical park in Liberty City for the developer; at the same time, Meek’s former chief of staff received $13,000 from Stackhouse. In addition, Meek’s mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, was paid $90,000 in consulting fees from Stackhouse and received a leased Cadillac Escalade for her work. Meek says he never knew about either payback, and the House Ethics Committee has not investigated the matter.
The pattern repeats itself in ads. Rep. Meek released his first TV ad earlier this month on Greene getting wealthy off of credit default swaps, to which Greene replied with an ad on Meek as a corrupt career politician. “He’s running against a billionaire who can write a check against what Kendrick can exceed in a year,” said Steven Schale, a Meek supporter, who was also the Florida director of the Obama/Biden campaign.
In Tuesday night’s debate, both candidates spent the whole time insulting each other, while complaining about the other’s attacks. “I was brought up as a kid that, if you have nothing good to say, you say nothing at all,” said Greene about Meek. Meek later said, “I have more integrity in my pinky than you have in your whole body,” and called him a “bad man” again. (The two have a final debate this Sun., Aug. 15, in Miami.)
Outside of the Democratic debate, Gov. Crist and Marco Rubio are pretty much ignoring the two. Schale acknowledged that if the race is between Crist and Rubio that the Democrats’ chances might be a “foregone conclusion.” However, he said, “In the general election, if Meek wins the primary, he’ll get a bump, and early polls could show all three are within 10 points. Then at that point, people will begin to think about Meek getting this thing done.” Greene has pulled ahead to a 33-23 percent lead over Meek, according to a July 28 PPP poll.
Greene scored a minor victory when a Meek supporter, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, told Chuck Todd on MSNBC he would unequivocally support Greene if Meek lost to him. All other major Democrats — President Obama, former President Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Florida Democratic Party — have endorsed Meek.
Bill Clinton, who is immensely popular in Florida, will be campaigning for Meek, including at a rally on Aug. 16. President Obama will appear at one fundraiser with Rep. Meek, but the original invitation-only included gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and the president. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Alcee Hastings, have said that the president isn’t doing enough for Meek. Hastings said that White House “cannot expect” his support if “they don’t step up their support for Kendrick.”
Greene continues to pour money into Florida, though at a fraction of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, the other self-funder running statewide in Florida this cycle. He has spent over $10 million, the vast majority of which is his own money. His ads either attack Meek or show him with his mother, wife, and 10-month old child, or are platitudes about job creation.
When one of the Democrats finally wins, either will face a new challenge — how to run without the other.