The Meek Better Look Out

A Haitian-American candidate for the nation's most Haitian district

After earning two back-to-back degrees at Harvard, a master's in public policy and an MBA, in 2002 Neree spotted a posting for his dream job. Soon he was working as a project consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, making six figures, jet-setting to Latin America, and financing public/private projects that, he says, "improved people's lives." But something was missing from the IADB work. "Haiti," says Neree. "There was never any investment in Haiti."

Then came the 2004 coup in Port-au-Prince. Neree was appalled by the muted Democratic response to the removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "Not a single one of the 435 members of Congress questioned the fact that Bush did not come to the aid financially or militarily of a president in trouble," he says. "The people responsible for speaking on behalf of the Haitian-American community are not doing a good job."

And the most responsible, he contends, is Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. "He represents the largest Haitian-American constituency in the United States," Neree says, his voice raising. "He is our spokesman."

A Meek spokesperson counters that the congressman has done yeoman's work on Haitian issues. "Mr. Neree is appallingly misinformed. Representative Meek spoke out repeatedly and forcefully throughout the crisis," says press secretary Drew Hammill. "No one has been more outspoken on Haitian issues than Congressman Meek."

In the summer of 2004, Neree quit his IADB job, he says simply, "to help Haiti, to figure out a way to eradicate poverty in Haiti." He kicked off his effort by taking a six-month tour of Latin America. "It's one thing to hear about economic development from financiers and government officials; it's another thing to see it from the ground level."

When Neree returned to Miami this past spring, his attention turned to politics; he increasingly fixated on Kendrick Meek's Haiti policy. Meek, he says, was consistently cosmetic. "He writes letters — lots of letters. He travels. But nothing is concrete." Then, in April of this year, the tipping point: Meek traveled to Haiti, met again with Haitian officials ("another cosmetic trip"), and sent out a press release about assuring that "security preparations" had been taken in advance of the elections. Neree was outraged. Many Haitians in Miami oppose elections on the island because the regime of current Prime Minister Gérard Latortue has jailed opposition candidates. "Meek is supporting a position that more than 50 percent of the people in the district believe is illegal," he says.

"I can certainly understand why Mr. Neree is angry and upset, but his understanding of the reality of the situation appears to be clouded by his own ambitions," Hammill comments.

By May 2005, Neree was holding informal focus groups. He'd walk into Little Haiti businesses and ask, "What if a Haitian candidate ran against Meek?" On Labor Day, just three weeks before Meek visited Haiti with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Neree declared his candidacy.

Neree is realistic. The younger Meek is, of course, the son of political legend Carrie Meek, the first African-American female elected to Congress since Reconstruction. Still, widely known as the energetic legislator who spearheaded Florida's popular state class-size amendment, the second-term congressman already has made his imprint in Congress, as a prominent figure on the Congressional Black Caucus and as a member of the House's powerful Armed Services Committee.

What's more, Meek has strong support in the Haitian community. When Jacques Despinosse, a North Miami city council member, was told of Neree's nascent campaign, he responded gruffly: "We're in good shape with Kendrick." The director of the Haitian-American Voter Education Center was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a Haitian congressman. "This guy is an unknown. Let him find some place else to go."

Likewise, Brutus, who believes a Haitian candidate is an inevitability in the 17th, says it might not be this time. "He's largely unknown," Brutus says of Neree. "He's been away from the district. People just don't know where he is, who he is."

Right now Neree is rallying to change that. To adequately deliver his message to voters, Neree says he'll need to raise at least $100,000 in the next three months. He currently has roughly $20,000 raised from family and friends.

Villain, for one, believes that if Neree can raise even 60 percent of Meek's war-chest, the incumbent could have a "good race." Regardless of the outcome, Villain says, a good race will be good for the district. "This district has never had an election," he says.

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