It sure looked like a political deal made the old-fashioned way, in the proverbial smoke-filled back room. But instead of a cabal of good old boys swapping favors, the culprits were a grandmotherly political legend and her son.
On July 7 Rep. Carrie Meek announced her retirement from Congress after five terms. Simultaneously her son, state Sen. Kendrick Meek, declared his candidacy for her seat. The timing couldn't have been more propitious -- or calculated. First the publicity: Meek parlayed the Sunday tidings of her departure into a protracted news event that quickly morphed into one long campaign commercial for her son. Second the political cunning: By waiting as long as she did to make her surprise pronouncement, the congresswoman left her son's potential opponents roughly two weeks to qualify as candidates (deadline: July 19), and two months to organize and mount a campaign before the Democratic primary in September.
Carrie Meek's District 17, designed to be heavily black and Democratic, threads its way from South Miami-Dade into Broward County. Most observers believe it would be exceedingly difficult for a GOP candidate to win the congressional seat. Thus the September 10 primary is seen as the real contest for Democrats.
Given Meek's popularity in the district and her proven abilities as a fundraiser, any challenger to son Kendrick would require a bulging campaign war chest and a top-flight political organization, requisites that take time to develop. But thanks to Meek, there is no time, or not enough time. And so it appears foretold: Mama retires as a U.S. representative and -- presto! -- her son is a congressman. It might not have been the work of the cigar-chomping white guys of yore, sipping bourbon and carving up the political map like a Sunday ham, but some feel the effect is the same: The democratic process is subverted and voters don't really have a choice. "With a great career like hers, this wasn't necessary," says Miami black activist and attorney Ron Cordon, a Carrie Meek supporter. "This was overkill. I'm against anything that appears to be an unfair advantage. Competition benefits the public."
T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami and a registered independent, puts it this way: "If it were Cuban or white people who did this, we'd be outraged. It's not in our interest to copy that behavior. History is full of people who have decided they want to continue their dynasty, and it's not always a good thing. In this particular case, I think it's unfair."
That sentiment, not surprisingly, goes against the tide. "I haven't heard one complaint," says Ray Zeller, chairman of Miami-Dade's Democratic Party. "Honestly, no one's said anything."
Ditto Broward's Democratic chairman Mitch Ceasar: "No one's complained here."
"If the voters don't like what's happened, they can write in a candidate," shrugs Ron Book, über-lobbyist, Democratic fundraiser, and Meek friend. "But I believe Kendrick's the best thing for the district."
Meek insists there was no effort to fix the race and that the process remains wide open. "Two weeks and a couple of days is enough time for anyone to make a decision," he argues. "I haven't called one person, nor has my mother, to discourage them from running."
Debate over the issue flared in South Florida's Haitian community, which is vying for its own political representation. Herntz Phanord, a talk-show host on WLQY-AM (1320), quizzed Kendrick on his show, Haiti Antennes Plus, shortly after Meek declared his candidacy. "I asked Kendrick outright: 'Does this smell of nepotism?'" Phanord recounts. (The answer was no.) "I would have liked to have seen a Haitian candidate," he adds. "I feel we should have been given more time. Two weeks doesn't cut it."
As a pioneering figure for women, blacks, and the poor, 76-year-old Carrie Meek is entitled to the plaudits coming her way. Her grandmother was a slave, she grew up in the segregated South, and she persevered in her ambition to become an effective public servant. She was the first black woman elected to the state Senate and the first black congressional representative from Florida since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Plenty to be proud of. But it's just not clear, skeptics maintain, that her son should blithely be swept into office on her substantial coattails.
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Thirty-five years old, Meek shares his mother's driving ambition and, some say, may be a shade more ruthless. In 1994 he took the political plunge by announcing his intention to oppose 22-year political veteran and women's-rights legend Elaine Gordon for her state House seat while she was in and out of the hospital suffering from a brain tumor. She recovered from the ailment but dropped out of the race. The episode was all the more bitterly contentious because Gordon publicly claimed that Meek, then 27 years old, had approached her about mentoring him so that he might win her legislative seat when she retired. Meek claimed it was Gordon who made the offer and that he declined. (Gordon died in 2000.)
A pattern developed. In his 1998 race for state Senate, Meek declared his challenge of incumbent William Turner, a revered black political figure, while Turner was in the hospital recovering from a heart attack and in spite of the fact that Turner had previously said it would be his last term in office. Turner recovered, ran, and lost. "I just thought Kendrick running against Mr. Turner in his last term is a sign of disrespect," the influential Bishop Victor Curry told New Times at the time. "The man is a senior statesman."
The junior Meek contends that he is not getting a free ride. After all, he notes, he's put in eight years as a Tallahassee legislator, one who made headlines for his sit-in at Gov. Jeb Bush's office (a protest against Bush's plan to end affirmative action at state agencies and universities) and who is now pushing a statewide campaign for a constitutional amendment to limit classroom size in public schools. "This isn't being handed to me," he says. "It's earned."
If all goes as predicted on election day, voters will simply have to take his word for it.