Obama support: Meek so far
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Black lawmakers are prodding the White House to get more involved in Florida Senate hopeful Kendrick Meek's campaign amid growing concern that less-than-robust backing from President Barack Obama will signal to Democrats that it's all right to help independent Charlie Crist.
Rep.Alcee Hastings, a black Florida Democrat, told POLITICO Thursday that he might not work for Obama's re-election if the president doesn't get into gear for Meek -- a four-term House member seeking to become the first black candidate elected to the Senate since President Obama won in Illinois in 2004.
"If they do not step up their support for Kendrick, then they cannot expect that I and my allies will support them in 2012," Hastings said, after describing the West Wing's treatment of Meek as "poor."
Hastings and Meek were among a cadre of Sunshine State congressmembers who worked against Obama in the presidential races and who stayed with Hillary Clinton until long after it was clear she had no path to victory.
Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said African American lawmakers have made "very clear" to the White House and congressional leaders that black lawmakers expect total support for Meek.
White House officials counter by saying there's nothing ambiguous about the president's position: He's endorsed Meek. And while he's done some work to shore up a handful of incumbent senators in pricy markets around the country, his campaigning for non-incumbents has been almost non-existent so far.
Meek's camp, which otherwise declined to comment for this story, confirmed late Friday that a long-promised fundraiser featuring White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will be held on August 2 -- one of fewer than five he's doing for Senate candidates.
Outside of the CBC, few nationally prominent Democrat have been aggressively supporting Meek, leading black caucus members to press his case with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), according to a source familiar with the discussion. Meek was invited to talk to Democratic senators at their weekly luncheon this past week and praised Menendez specifically when he emerged from the room.
And there are some signs of support outside the CBC: Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, hosted a fundraiser for him at her Capitol Hill townhouse at the end of May, according to sources who attended.
The offensive on Meek's behalf comes at the tail end of a tumultuous week for the Florida Senate race, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) flatly denied a report that he and Crist had back-channel talks about the independent caucusing with Democrats if he wins the Senate seat.
Polls now show Crist with a lead in a three-way race against Republican Marco Rubio and either Meek or his Democratic primary challenger, billionaire political neophyte Jeff Greene. And Meek's fundraising has also lagged behind both Rubio, who was the biggest raiser of the three last quarter, and Crist, who raised less than he had in the previous period but still nearly doubled the congressman's haul.
Separately, the White House last week tried to keep the first black president at arm's length from a racially tinged imbroglio involving the firing of -- and subsequent apology to -- Shirley Sherrod, a black Agriculture Department employee who was fired after a video was posted on the website Big Government showing her making what appeared to be racially insensitive remarks.
After the White House initially tried to stay clear of the story, Obama was forced to apologize to her after it came out that the video had been edited to misrepresent her meaning. She's been offered a new job at the department, but hasn't yet said if she'll accept it.
The Sherrod episode and the complaints of lukewarm backing for Meek fit "part of a pattern" of the first black president's team repeatedly botching race relations, according to an African American lawmaker who said it is "outrageous" that Meek hasn't gotten more support from Obama.
"All of us came in for [Obama] when he was running for the Senate," the lawmaker said, referring to the Congressional Black Caucus.
But a White House official strongly denied that there has been any vacillating on Meek, saying, "We support Kendrick."
"As the president has said, Kendrick Meek is his candidate and he fully expects that he will be the next senator from the state of Florida," White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said. "As we get closer to the election, you can expect the president to campaign in Florida and around the country for Democrats up and down the ballot."
Yet there's still fear building up among party loyalists that a swath of Democrats are quietly rooting for or quietly open to Crist, who led the potential three-way race with 35 percent to 29 percent for Rubio and 17 percent for Meek in a Public Policy Polling survey released this week.
The calculus becomes easier for Democrats if Greene, a self-funding but flamboyant candidate who's hosted madam Heidi Fleiss as a house guest and had Mike Tyson as the best man at his wedding, wins the primary. In that event, most are expected to turn openly to Crist.
Meek supporters' frustrations aren't limited to -- or always aimed at -- the West Wing, according to a source familiar with the race.
Part of why the frustrations are becoming public - and palpable - is that Meek hasn't appeared to be a huge priority on the list of many prominent national Democratic figures, with few coming in to aggressively help him.
The involvement of former Obama adviser Anita Dunn's firm SKDKnickerbocker with Crist involves not just the former White House communications director, but veteran strategist Josh Isay as the candidate's media strategist. Isay is Sen. Chuck Schumer's former campaign manager and has maintained ties to the New York senator. Jon Ausman, a member of the Democratic National Committee, endorsed Greene recently at roughly the same time he was being paid as a consultant to Greene's campaign, according to the Associated Press. And Dunn has cut ties to the party machinery for this election because of her firm's work with Crist, although she personally isn't involved.
"It's not so much the White House per se, it's a general frustration that there are a number of Democrats in Washington, in Florida, that are playing footsie with Charlie Crist," the source said.
A black state legislator took to the pages of the Palm Beach Post to appeal for Meek this week.
"It is very disappointing, based on recent coverage in The Palm Beach Post, to see Democrats turning their back on their party, believing that the only way to win the Senate seat in November is by supporting a Republican or an independent, especially when the Democratic Party has a formidable rising star in the race who has championed Democratic ideals and values," state Rep. Perry E. Thurston Jr. wrote in a letter to the editor. "When he became an independent, Gov. Crist gifted the Senate seat to Kendrick Meek and the Democratic Party. ... It is very easy for people to say that someone can't win, but they never will win if we don't support our own. I'm reminded of a young man from Chicago whom plenty of people felt couldn't win."
And with no sign that the White House considers aid to Crist or Greene to be an act of treachery, some Democrats are taking that silence as a tacit approval.
Crist took a big political risk -- and paid the price within Republican circles -- by endorsing Obama's $787 billion stimulus law in 2009. Rubio used a picture of Crist and Obama embracing to gain traction in the Republican primary, finally forcing the state's sitting governor to leave the party and launch an independent run, as polls showed the nomination he'd been widely expected to win slipping out of his reach.
And Crist would be a hero of many independent voters should he win, a portion of the electorate that will be critical to Obama as he seeks re-election in 2012.
Hastings, though, said that having Meeks in the senate would pay dividends for Obama in the crucial swing state -- while Crist would hurt Democrats in redistricting and in the presidential race in two years.
"President Obama is going to be on the ballot in 2012. If Kendrick Meek could win this election, then Obama's election is a slam dunk," Hastings said.
He said Obama should make at least two appearances for Meek in separate cities in Florida before the November election and give him aid now in various forms.
One factor that's highlighted concerns for some Florida Democrats about the White House is the frequent assistance provided by former President Bill Clinton, who has a long relationship with Meek's family and feels deeply loyal to him for sticking with Hillary Clinton's primary so late in the game.
Several black lawmakers told POLITICO that there was tension between Obama and Meek during the 2008 campaign, and some of the president's supporters have noted the irony of Meek backers wanting more out of Obama now.
Meek's supporters reacted strongly to a POLITICO report earlier this week that Senior Adviser David Axelrod hadn't yet committed the president to campaigning specifically for Meek.
"We're going to campaign for Democrats all over the country," Axelrod said when asked whether Obama will hit the hustings for Meek. Pressed a second time on Meek's race, Axelrod replied "We haven't worked out the whole schedule."
The Obama family plans to vacation on Florida's Gulf Coast in the middle of next month, and the president could raise money for Democratic candidates while he's there.
But Obama generally has limited time and energy to campaign for candidates, and the demand for his help is far greater than he can fill in the stretch run before the election. According to White House figures leaked last week, the president had done or scheduled 24 events for Senate incumbents and candidates. But most of them, including three for Reid, are aimed at holding seats Democrats already control.
Another Democratic source supportive of the president noted that there are CBC members who haven't donated to Meek's campaign.
For now, the Emanuel fundraiser should turn down the temperature.
But Meek has influential voices on his side on Capitol Hill should he need more support in the future.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said he has been pressing his case with the White House.
"I'm committed to Kendrick Meek's candidacy and I'm working to get support from every quarter I can," he said.
First Published July 24, 2010 2:16 am