MIAMI (AP) – Some people knock Kendrick Meek by saying he inherited his congressional seat from his mother, Carrie Meek, who held it for 10 years before him.
Meek, though, points out that he has overcome other struggles in his life, political and personal. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade. He worked his way through college while also playing football for Florida A&M. He led the effort to put class-size limits in the state constitution while then-Gov. Jeb Bush was campaigning against it.
So when billionaire Jeff Greene entered the Democratic Senate primary and vowed to spend as much as it took to win, Meek, who was supposed to be a lock for the nomination, saw it as another challenge he could overcome.
"We went up against the governor before his Category 5 strength,'' Meek said of Bush. "We look at these issues and we look at these past challenges. When folks say we can't do something, I take it as encouragement because I've been told that before.''
Meek was the first person to enter the race to fill the seat now held by Sen. George LeMieux, whom Gov. Charlie Crist appointed last year after Mel Martinez resigned.
Instead of writing a check and getting on the ballot the easy way, he became the first Florida Senate candidate ever to qualify for the ballot by petition. His campaign gathered more than 150,000 signatures, along with e-mail addresses to build grass-roots support.
He's also trying to project himself as not just being another South Florida politician who doesn't relate to the rest of the state. The class-size petition drive helps, he said.
"I see it as very beneficial to my argument during this statewide campaign that I'm not just a South Florida politician that cares about South Florida issues only. I care about issues that are facing the entire state,'' Meek said.
He's also spent a lot of time campaigning in north Florida communities Democrats often ignore. A big fan of NASCAR, he sponsored Mike Wallace's car for a race in Daytona Beach.
"It was really, really amazing. It was my first time sponsoring and I've never been on the track sitting in the box behind the crew watching the pit change and all of that. It was really an experience the kids enjoyed and it was great for me,'' Meek said.
His two children, Lauren, 15, Kendrick Jr., 13, have joined him on the campaign trail for many events. Meek brings along fishing poles and often makes time to go fishing with his kids between stops.
Meek, 43, was born and raised in the Miami area. His mother was divorced and raised him on her own. Meek became familiar with Tallahassee when his mother served in the Legislature, a path he later followed after serving as a Florida Highway Patrol trooper. He was elected to the state House in 1994 as a 28-year-old and later to the state Senate in 1998. He won his mother's seat in 2002, the same year he led the class-size effort.
The class-size initiative wasn't the first time Meek stood up to Bush. When Bush announced he was getting rid of affirmative action in state university admissions and state contracts, Meek and then Rep. Tony Hill staged a sit-in protest in the governor's office complex. They stayed overnight until Bush agreed to meet with them on his plan.
"(Bush) finally came out the next morning and talked to us as equals and listened to our concerns,'' said Hill, who is now a senator. Bush also agreed to hold meetings around the state so people can voice their opinion on the policy.
The decision to stand up to Bush says a lot about Meek's character, Hill said.
"It speaks volumes of the fortitude, the upbringing that he had from his mom,'' Hill said, adding that hanging around lawmakers as a child when his mother served helped Meek develop skills he needed in office. "He really had an upfront audience on how to shape public policy, how to stand up and look people in the eye.''
He's also used those skills in Washington, where he's caught the attention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. At Pelosi's request he helped lead the "30 Something Working Group'' young representatives that find creative ways to deliver policy messages to younger voters.
"He doesn't want to just sit on the sidelines. If there is a problem that needs solving, he doesn't wait for someone to decide what we're going to do. He's the one that proposes the solution and at least the way to make it happen,'' said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also served with Meek in the state Senate.
"Kendrick Meek is a multifaceted legislator who has used his skill and his voice and his office to help so many people.''
Pitured Above: Rep. Kendrick Meek