Why Florida Senate race may rehash Clinton-Obama divide

theGRIO REPORT - Kendrick Meek was one of several Congressional Black Caucus members to choose Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 primaries...

Kendrick Meek faces numerous questions in his quest for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. Can he survive a primary challenge by billionaire Jeff Greene? Can a little known Congressman from Miami beat a Republican star (Marco Rubio) and a popular sitting governor (Charlie Crist)? Can he accomplish this with the country’s first black president with approval ratings in the low 40s? Is Florida ready to elect its first black Senator?

But of all the questions Meek faces, the most persistent might be about his relationship with President Barack Obama.

Meek was one of several Congressional Black Caucus members (including all three in Florida) to choose Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 primaries. He continued to support Hillary long after her candidacy ceased to be viable.

“Here’s the deal. I supported Hillary but I wasn’t against Barack Obama,” said Meek, who met the former president while serving as a state trooper on then-Gov. Lawton Chiles’ security detail. “Anyone who understands the relationship between President Clinton and myself and my family knows it wasn’t anything other than a longstanding working and personal relationship.”

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Meek stood by the former president when Bill Clinton was accused of making racially charged comments during the South Carolina primary. Meek, who was there, said Clinton’s response to a question about Obama’s statewide coalition was taken out of context.

That loyalty has earned Meek several fundraisers, plus three personal appearances by Clinton in a single day this week. But it’s also led to speculation that support for Meek from the current White House is tepid; or worse, that Team Obama might be rooting behind the scenes for Crist.

An emotional issue…and a strategic one

For many African-Americans in 2008, “Hillary or Obama?” was an emotionally charged question. (Just ask Tavis Smiley.)

“There are people walking around who have to tell their children and their grandchildren, that because of party, or because they were with Hillary, they could not support the first black president of the United States,” said veteran South Florida radio personality James T” Thomas, who watched his mostly black audience flip from overwhelmingly pro-Hillary in 2006, to pro-Obama by early 2007.

For Meek, it’s also strategic. With the August 24 primary looming and Greene courting African-Americans in his congressional district (though Meek dismisses Greene’s black supporters as paid operatives,) Meek needs the younger, ethnic, “surge” voters who registered for Obama – to supplement the older, liberal Democrats who traditionally vote in off-year elections.

In general election polls, Crist is grabbing 19 percent of the black vote – just shy of what he actually received in 2006 against a Democratic ticket with an African-American lieutenant governor candidate.

And Crist is seizing every opportunity to align himself with the president.

So is Meek, whose initial absence from the announcement of a Wednesday Obama fundraiser for the state Democratic Party and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink prompted an outcry from fellow CBC member Alcee Hastings of Palm Beach.

Hastings accuses unnamed White House operatives of being “unresponsive” to members like Meek and himself who supported Hillary, “including some who happen to be white.”

“Mind you some of these operatives used to work for Hillary Clinton’s husband,” he said.

Hastings said the White House must fully back Meek, or risk losing more than a Senate seat in November.

“I’ve had this same conversation with Alex Sink,” Hastings said, “that if Kendrick isn’t on the ballot she’s gonna have a hard time winning the governor’s race. Same for the attorney general and all the other candidates statewide. If they do not have a substantial African-American turnout, whatever effort they put out, [overall] turnout will not be as it was in ‘08 for Obama, and I might add, for Hillary.

Meek campaign manager Abe Dyk, and Steve Schale, who ran the Obama Florida campaign insist the White House fully endorses Meek – something they’re not doing for other non-incumbent Democrats. And Meek says his personal relationship with the president is solid.

“I’m very pleased with the fact that the president, early on, buried whatever issues were there in the primary of 2008,” Meek said. “Because if that was the prevailing way of doing business in the White House and amongst his political team, then Hillary Clinton would not be the Secretary of State and Joe Biden wouldn’t be the vice president of the United States.”

“I’m more concerned about the president’s involvement and feeling towards my campaign than about those that may hold onto old feelings that are uncalled for,” he said.

During Wednesday’s fundraiser, Obama praised Meek as “the next senator from the state of Florida,” a “champion of middle-class families and someone who is not afraid to stand up to special interests.” Afterward, the two made a brief, surprise stop a popular Miami Beach deli. The Meek campaign promptly circulated photos of them together.