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Princes of politics have a lot in common

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2002

The Bushes aren't the only dynasty making big political waves in Florida.

The Bushes aren't the only dynasty making big political waves in Florida.

U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, that Democratic icon who spent 23 years in Congress and the state Legislature, announced her pending retirement amid tears and hugs at an African-American church in her hometown of Miami. Her timing, just two weeks before candidates must qualify to run for the district, was choreographed to hand her seat to her anointed successor: her son, state Sen. Kendrick Meek.

"I know there will be other candidates," the 76-year-old congresswoman said. "But there's just one Meek."

Actually, there may be no other candidates. Faced with little time to gear up a campaign and the daunting prospect of taking on the Meek family political machine, no one had stepped up by Friday. The 35-year-old Kendrick Meek, himself a hero to many Democrats statewide, will likely step onto the national stage next year without breaking a sweat.

The younger Meek is something of an anomaly in Florida politics. He's a Democrat who doesn't just try, but actually succeeds, in periodically making Jeb Bush's life miserable.

"That's why he has endeared himself to his constituency so well," said Bishop Victor Curry, a pastor and talk radio host in Miami. "They see him as a guy who is not intimidated by the Bushes, and there are not many people up there in Tallahassee, black or white, Republican or Democrat, who are not intimidated by the Bushes."

The trend -- and Meek's meteoric rise in stature -- started in January, 2000, when the governor refused to discuss with Meek and other legislators his "One Florida" plan to overhaul affirmative action programs in Florida. That led to Meek staging a 25-hour sit-in in the governor's office, a series of highly charged hearings across the state where Bush was savaged, and the largest-ever protest march on Tallahassee.

Meek wasn't done. He and sit-in colleague Tony Hill of Jacksonville launched a massive and hugely successful voter registration drive to increase minority participation in the 2000 presidential election. African-American turnout soared, with 93 percent of black voters backing Gore. Meek, as much as anyone else, can take credit for Gore's near-win in Florida.

Meek is still causing trouble for the governor that could continue into a second Bush term. After his daughter wound up in a kindergarten class with 30 other kids, Meek started leading the charge for a popular ballot initiative that would require smaller class sizes.

He calls it an effort on behalf of frustrated Florida parents who can't get Tallahassee to respond. But state economists peg the cost of shrinking class sizes at up to $27.5-billion over eight years. That kind of mandated bill could lay waste to whatever fiscal agenda Bush hoped to pursue during his second term.

He says his bid for Congress will not slow down his class-size campaign.

Jeb Bush doesn't underestimate Meek's political skills. "I wouldn't put him in the statesman category but I would put him in the category of a very effective politician," Bush said Friday.

Meek on Bush: "He believes in what he believes and if you don't fall into that constituency of what he believes in, then tough."

So Meek and Bush clearly don't think much of each other. But the blue-blood governor and the great grandson of a slave have more in common than they might be willing to admit.

Here are two political princes who probably would not be where they are today were it not for their lineage. Each had the brains and force of personality to step out of the shadows of their famous political parents, but the affirmative action defender and affirmative action reformer were born with opportunities most politicians can only dream of.

Meek learned his work ethic watching his mother and sleeping under her desk as she pored over legislation late into the night at the Capitol. Bush, himself a noted overtime worker, grew up watching his father's public service, and he cut his political teeth working on his assorted campaigns.

Bush made his riches in the private sector, where doors opened fast thanks to his last name and political connections. Meek is a former state trooper who, while his mother was in the Legislature, jumped several ranks to captain at the urging of Gov. Lawton Chiles so that he could become Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay's security aide. These days he makes a living handling business development for the Wackenhut Corp., a job that relies heavily on his connections.

Bush launched his first gubernatorial campaign in 1994, pulling in money and players from the Bush family Rolodex. It enabled him to beat veteran Republican politicians in the primary, though he narrowly lost the general election. That same year, Meek leveraged his mother's considerable political muscle to win a state House seat. Four years later, as Bush won the governor's mansion, Meek unseated an incumbent to join the state senate.

Both Bush and Meek are innate politicians with deep convictions. They manage to mute their frequent partisanship with personalities that exude passion and sincerity.

Maybe it's time to bury the hatchet. Maybe moving to Washington will get Kendrick Meek out of Jeb Bush's face. They could do lunch. Talk about the their love of family. Let bygones be bygones. Or princes be princes.

-- Adam C. Smith is political editor of the Times. He can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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