Celebrities, yachts, corruption charges mark bitter Democratic Senate primary in Florida

By Brendan Farrington, AP
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Celebrities, attacks on mom? It’s Fla.’s Dem race

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The level of political discourse in the Democratic Senate primary boils down to: Your celebrity friends are low lifes. Response: So’s your mom.

Four-term Rep. Kendrick Meek and real estate billionaire Jeff Greene have been relentless in criticizing each other, and the vitriol is unlikely to end with Tuesday’s primary.

Meek has called Greene a “bad man” who earned his wealth on the backs of the working class; Greene made his money forecasting that the mortgage market would collapse. Greene called the congressman corrupt and criticized his mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek, saying she got money and a Cadillac Escalade from a developer seeking federal money for a project.

“People in Florida need that money for important projects here in Florida, not to pay back some guy who’s employing your mother,” Greene said at one debate.

Even in Florida — home to hanging chads, a presidential deadlock, protests and a recount — the negative tone has hit a new low for some voters.

“All the things he’s saying about Meek’s mother? There’s no facts to that. If there were, there’d be an investigation,” said Brian Zarett, 44, of Delray Beach, who is turned off by “all the mudslinging.”

The nomination was supposed to be a lock for Meek, a one-time Florida Highway Patrol trooper and son of the former congresswoman in the north Miami congressional district. But on the last day possible, Greene entered the race and immediately began spending millions on television ads.

Greene’s entry cast a spotlight on his celebrity friends and high-flying lifestyle. The race quickly got ugly.

“I’m the outsider job creator, he’s the failed career politician,” said Greene, who moved to Florida two years ago from California.

Meek has the Democratic establishment behind him; former President Bill Clinton campaigned with the congressman Monday and President Barack Obama told a Democratic Party rally in Miami on Wednesday that Meek “has been a champion of middle-class families and somebody who has not been afraid to stand up to the status quo and special interests.”

Recent polls show Meek in the lead.

“I can’t tell you how many people walk up to me and say, ‘I don’t know much about Jeff Greene, but any man that attacks another man’s mother for political gain, I have a problem with him,’” Meek said.

With the candidates remarkably similar on the issues such as the economy and health care, Greene’s personal life has made more news. He dismisses the tales as sideshows.

Former boxing champion and convicted rapist Mike Tyson was Greene’s best man when he got married three years ago. Former Hollywood madame Heidi Fleiss was a houseguest for a year. Lindsay Lohan, the actress who has had repeated problems with drugs and alcohol, spent part of New Year’s Eve with Greene in tony St. Bart’s. Greene and director Ron Howard went to court after a luxury Southern California home that Howard rented from Greene turned out to be less than advertised. Greene lost the case.

And then there’s Summerwind, Greene’s yacht.

Belize officials say it caused extensive damage to a coral reef and left the Central American country before an investigation could be completed. Greene wasn’t on the yacht at the time and claims the story was fabricated.

In 2007, Greene was on the yacht when it docked in Cuba for a few days, possibly in violation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist country. His explanation of why changed several times. First, he said he wasn’t on the yacht, then later said he “went to Cuba years ago on a Jewish mission.” His latest story is the boat needed repairs after leaving Honduras and was forced to stop. Once there, Greene said he visited with members of Cuba’s Jewish community.

Meek says such stories show that Greene doesn’t have the character to be senator.

“Rape is not a misdemeanor … and if you’re going to be the next U.S. senator you have to be the kind of person to lead by example and the people that you run with have to be people who are citizens in good standing,” Meek said. “It’s definitely not in the things-to-do if you want to run for office one day, to make this selection.”

He says Greene will be “an embarrassment to Democrats and the people of the state of Florida.”

Greene slams Meek, saying he’s just another politician paying favors to donors. He repeatedly points out that Meek sought earmarks for a failed biomedical complex in a poor area of his Miami district. The developer, Dennis Stackhouse, is accused of stealing $1 million in government money.

While proposing the project, Stackhouse paid Meek’s mother $90,000 in consulting fees and gave her the use of a Cadillac Escalade. He also provided Meek’s former chief of staff $13,000 to secure a home loan.

“I’m going to look out for the people of Florida by not taking any special interest money. Kendrick Meek is looking out for special interests,” Greene said. “I’m not going to be involved in any corruption scandals.”

Meek calls himself the only true Democrat in the race, citing Greene’s 1982 run as a Republican for a California congressional seat. Greene lost in the primary.

The winner will face Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent after abandoning the GOP. Polls show both Meek and Greene trailing Rubio and Crist. The race is to fill the seat held by Republican Sen. George LeMieux, whom Crist appointed to fill out the term when Mel Martinez resigned last year.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects that the developer was seeking federal help for the project, not tax breaks.)

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