The end for Kendrick Meek, the ambitious and tough-framed Congressman from Liberty City, could not have been more pronounced than the reports hitting wires only days before the election that would decide his future: Meek, rumors told, was “dropping out of the race.”
Furiously beating back notions of quitting, Meek seemed desperate but stubbornly resilient in the final days before Nov. 2. Still, the image of Bill Clinton asking you to step down was not the sort of political ad you wanted popping up before Decision Day. The former President stuck to his promise, though, vigorously stumping for the three-term Congressman as far as Florida’s pan-handle.
But, a flood of reports flowing out of the Sunshine State that Clinton twice persuaded Meek to drop out of the race and endorse the independent bid of current Gov. Charlie Crist stuck. Sources claimed there was an impending deal between the three – Clinton, Meek and Crist – with Meek, at one point, expected to join Crist at an upcoming rally and energize skeptical Democratic voters to vote for the former Republican Governor.
Meek said that was simply “untrue.”
Still, it became the defining end chapter in what started as something very possible for Meek only a year ago. With the country electing its first Black President, race seemed irrelevant; hard campaigning actually counted for something. And, Meek was known for his direct, get-it-done style – he was the first statewide candidate in Florida’s history to qualify for ballot by collecting petition signatures. Meek as Florida’s first African American Senator was certainly within the realm of possibility. The diverse demographics in Florida, a potpourri of culture unusual for the typical Southern state, ruled out race as the determining factor.
So, what happened?
At first glance, Meek found himself exhausted and financially outgunned in the general election. While the former state trooper and star college defensive lineman possessed the personal stamina to get it done, his campaign couldn’t fully recover from a bruising, expensive primary against billionaire Jeff Greene (D).
Post-primary, the big fat fly in Meek’s soup, so to speak, came in the form of Republican-turned-Independent Gov. Charlie Crist, the smooth-operating lifetime politico who managed to slick his way out of a GOP primary. Crist, like Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in Pennsylvania, needed a game-change maneuver to make his way into Senate glory. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio had too much grassroots support from the burgeoning Tea Party movement, creating complications for older career politicians with bronze tans. Party-switching seemed like a viable plan that could draw Republican voters away from Rubio. But, once the three-way race took shape, polls suggested the GOP fell pretty solidly behind their nominee. Crist, pressed for momentum, needed to pull Democratic votes.
That was more of a problem for Meek, polls suggested, than for Crist. Had Crist decided to stand down in 2010, Meek could have actually been within 2 or 3 percentage points within striking distance of a surging Rubio. This race had fast turned into a battle of the party bases, and Democratic voters appeared more skeptical of Crist in a way similar to the distrust Keystone state voters felt when asked to vote for Specter. Switching party affiliation seemed too convenient and politically-timed. It didn’t seem like Crist was about Florida as much as he was about Charlie Crist. And Democrats were not all that certain Crist, a longtime Republican with deep ties to the party establishment, would end up playing caucus with them in the Senate if he won.
Ultimately, yet subtly, race played a major factor in Meek’s loss. Race is always a factor that decides close elections. Though race didn’t rear its complicated head in the news, Florida’s ethnic composition posed vexing problems to Meek from the start. Caribbean Latinos, from Cubans to Puerto Ricans, were excited by the prospect of a power grab in the Senate. Meek’s very Black, Afro-Caribbean connections in Southern Florida, highlighted by his representation of one of the largest Haitian communities in the U.S., was in direct conflict with the political and economic needs of Rubio’s ethnic base. However, Meek could have drawn support from Black Afro-Cubans and other Latinos of African descent who would have found common ground with the Congressman on both skin color and history.
The larger problem for Meek, beyond Crist and Rubio, was his inability to marshal Black support in the state. The Black voting bloc in Florida is huge, with Black voter registrations in 2008 responsible for giving Democrats a 2-to-1 registration edge. Weeks before Election Day, Meek was consistently polling low among Black voters, with Crist drawing almost 30% of that bloc when Meek should have pulled well past 90%. Crist’s familiarity and likability quotient amongst Black voters could have been one of the more fatal blows to Meek’s campaign.
But, Meek also suffered due to a lack of support from the White House, which appeared more comfortable dispatching Bill Clinton as opposed to pushing President Barack Obama out front in Florida. A stumping President seemed more inclined to host fundraisers for Rep. Ron Klein (D-FL), who unsuccessfully battled Allen West (R) in one of the more closely watched races in the House. Some of this may have been self-inflicted: many sources pointed to Meek’s 2008 support of Hillary Clinton. While the Meek campaign itself rejected that idea, the fact remains that relations between the White House and the Congressional Black Caucus remain tense, at best, starting with split loyalties from 2008.
Meek, for the moment, may find himself on the receiving end of accusations that he spoiled the election for Democrats, his 20 percent contributing to Rubio’s win. Hence, it will be some time before he fully recovers politically. Yet, politics has a short life span. Though Meek, now jobless by political standards, will have to momentarily fall back into obscurity, a comeback could take shape in the form of a fresh Congressional run in 2012 or 2014, with him either reclaiming his old seat or waiting for a redistricting opportunity to appear. But, the latter could prove much more complex as Florida voters also approved a new amendment to the Florida Constitution setting new rules for legislative district redrawing. The days of funny Congressional districts in Florida may be numbered.
All said, Meek shows a promising future, molded by track record and energy unsurpassed by many high profile politicians. Once the stain of this defeat wears off, it’s certain he’ll return to Florida politics as though the Senate contest never took place. Alternatively, he may even hold a surprising turn in the Obama Administration, which will undoubtedly be looking to rally troops who believe in the Democratic vision and can get the job done. He’s on the big map now and what he doesn’t find in elected office, he could very well match through a stint as an organization director or the leader of a grassroots movement. This is neither Harold Ford nor Artur Davis, both plunging into punditry and corporate board-stocking. He’s too plugged in to the streets and he’s got too many years ahead of him. The future is still very bright for Kendrick Meek. Democrats ought to put hard feelings aside and take a second look.