HOLLYWOOD (AP) _ Democrats know Alex Sink will be their nominee for governor. In the Senate race, it's anybody's guess right now who will represent the party.
Congressman Kendrick Meek says his opponent, billionaire Jeff Greene, is trying to buy the nomination. Greene, who entered the race just hours before the deadline to get on the ballot, says Meek is a career politician and that's the problem with Washington.
Both addressed 1,300 activists at the Florida Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner Saturday night, July 17. Meek was clearly more popular with the crowd, drawing more applause as he started his speech and often interrupted by cheers. One of Greene's only applause lines was when he said he would support the party nominee, whoever it is.
Meek boasted about successfully leading the effort to put class-size limits in the state constitution despite campaigning against it by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He also recalled how he held a sit-in in Bush's office complex to protest his decision to remove affirmative action protections from state contracts and university admissions.
He said as a state legislator, he worked “to make sure everyone has a voice _ standing up to Jeb Bush when he was in a Category 5 frenzy when we passed class size.''
Greene, who is running as a political outsider, received lukewarm applause. He said Washington needs people who understand the global economy.
“I started with nothing, I worked hard all of my life,'' Green said. “I am absolutely humbled by the success I've achieved in America. I've lived the American dream. Unfortunately because of Washington's failures, too many Americans are living the American nightmare.''
The Senate race has been a wild ride. Former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez resigned with 16 months left in his term. Meek jumped into the race almost immediately. Then, in May 2009, Gov. Charlie Crist announced he would seek the seat instead of a second term. Crist later appointed his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, to finish Martinez's term.
Crist was considered the heavy favorite to win the Republican nomination until he fell out of favor with conservatives, and rising Republican star Marco Rubio overcame a huge money disadvantage to build a double-digit lead in the polls.
On April 29, Crist announced he was dropping out of the Republican primary and running as an independent. The next day, Greene announced he would challenge Meek.
The Democratic primary has since become vicious, with Meek accusing Greene of profiting off the misery of others by correctly betting the housing market would collapse, and Greene questioning Meek's ethics.
“The career politicians have failed us in each and every way, our world has never been less safe, our economy is a disaster,'' Greene told the crowd. “We all know why we're in this mess, because of career politicians in Washington.''
Before the dinner, Meek told reporters that Greene is running as a rich man looking for something new to do.
“I don't believe Floridians will allow him to purchase this race. We've been working hard. It means something,'' Meek said. “He's living in a different world. He's not living in the world with the folks that are sitting at the dining room table trying to figure out how they're going to make ends meet.''
The crowd also rallied Sink, the state's chief financial officer, who will either face Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum or Rick Scott, the former Columbia/HCA CEO who has spent more than $20 million of his own money to take a lead in the GOP primary. Lawton “Bud'' Chiles III, son of the late governor, is running as an independent.
Sink criticized Republicans for being “out of touch and out of control'' on issues from oil drilling to the economy.
“As the lone Democratic voice on the state Cabinet, I have had to push, prod, and even chastise every step of the way to be sure that our government takes action and takes responsibility,'' Sink said. “And sometimes, as I sit at those Cabinet meetings, I think to myself, 'Who are you people? And what are you doing for Florida?'''
Democrats have not held the governor's office since Bush, a Republican, was sworn in January 1999. While Democrats have made some gains in recent years _ most notably Sink winning her office four years ago and President Barack Obama carrying the state in 2008 _ they see this year as their best opportunity in a long time to regain some power in Tallahassee.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, also spoke at the event. He said beforehand he was in Florida because of the importance of the governor's race.
He also said Sink is being helped by the negative campaigns McCollum and Scott are running against each other.
“The Republicans are helping. As they're engaged in a civil war to see who can go farther right, we've got Alex Sink who is incredibly qualified and she's focused on jobs,'' Markell said.
Pictured above are Kendrick Meek, left, and Jeff Greene, right.