From Mel To Meek? Miami Congressman Launches Senate Bid

At the top of the hour, baby-faced U.S. Rep Kendrick Meek, the Democrat from Miami, will announce his bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010 when Republican Sen. Mel Martinez steps down. Being the first from either party to declare, Meek's given himself nearly two years to campaign.Which is a good thing, because as I gaze north of the Palm Beach County line, I'm seeing lots of "Kendrick who?" looks.


Well then, let's introduce him. Meek is the son of Rep. Carrie Meek, who enjoyed a long, scandal-free tenure representing an overwhelmingly Democratic district of Miami in the state House, then the state senate before winning election to U.S. Congress in 1992. Young Kendrick Meek earned a scholarship to play football at Florida A&M, which was fortuitous because Floridians love football and down the line he might need football credentials. After graduating Meek enrolled in the Florida Highway Patrol Academy, ensuring that he would have tough-on-crime credentials long into his future political career. It didn't hurt that in 1990 Meek arrested over 150 drunk drivers, or roughly the same number who can be found on a single mile of northbound I-95 in Broward County between the hours of 12 and 2 a.m.

That helped Meek earn a gig on the security detail for Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay, who was the second to Gov. Lawton Chiles. This led to two more jobs. One was in the private sector getting contracts for a private security company called Wackenhut. And one in the public sector: After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, Chiles appointed Meek to coordinate the state's role in the aid effort. Another assignment that contained lots of political capital.

So in 1994 when at age 27 Meek decided he was ready to run for the state House, he was the son of a congresswoman who also played outside linebacker in college and helped Floridians recover from hurricanes. He won, beating incumbent Democrat Elaine Gordon.

To be fair, Meek's wasn't quite a primrose path. He had to deal with his parents' divorce and battled dyslexia as an adolescent. He deserves credit for displaying an unusual degree of poise and focus at an age when other progeny-of-politicians are the drunk drivers, not the arresters of drunk drivers.

As a state rep, Meek had a role in bulldozing the crackhouses in his district, as well as registering thousands low-income voters. By 1998, the 31-year-old decided to take a shot at the state senate, even though the seat he wanted belonged to a powerful incumbent, Sen. William Turner, who'd been a fixture in the community for two decades. A nasty campaign followed in which Turner accused Carrie Meek of pulling strings for her son and in which Kendrick Meek organized community events, only to refuse an invitation to Turner. The mother-son team proved a dynamic fund raising duo, and Kendrick Meek won the primary en route to an easy victory in the general election.

As a state senator, Meek displayed a flair for the dramatic. He was one of two African American legislators (Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville was the other.) to stage a 25-hour sit-in at the office of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan to protest Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida Initiative, which ended race and gender preferences in public contracting as well as higher education. Eventually, the governor's office negotiated a settlement that saved Bush the embarrassment -- and police officers the physical exertion -- of dragging the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Meek from the state capital. Still, the episode sparked a much larger demonstration in Tallahassee, as well as criticism of Bush that was so fierce that it caused the governor to choke back tears -- seriously, actual human emotion -- during a speech at a black Baptist congregation. But Meek's chief success as a state senator was a petition drive to reduce the size of classrooms in Florida public schools. The ballot measure that was headed for passage in 2002 -- just in time for Meek's next ambition: the U.S. House of Representatives.

That path was made even smoother by the fact that the congressional seat was being kept warm by Meek's mom, who had announced that she was retiring and that her son's election to Congress would be the highlight of her life. No other Democrat had the audacity to challenge that story line, and that's how a 36-year-old Kendrick Meek came to Washington. He faced no opposition in his reelection campaigns of 2004 and 2006.

As a congressman, Meek landed a coveted appointment to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which has a hand in shaping American trade policy as well as spending on entitlement programs. His record shows he's a proponent of school spending and that he holds the traditional Democrat positions of being protective of the environment, pro-choice, anti-gun and pro-stem cell research.

Meek announces his bid for U.S. Senate on the same day that Roland Burris is seated as the lone African American in the chamber. With any luck, by 2010 the senate will have slightly more racial diversity than, say, a Scottish festival.