kendrick-meek_web.jpgDELRAY BEACH — Kendrick Meek scored a minor victory last Sunday, May 23 when he secured the full backing of the AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor movement.

The endorsement gives him access to the union’s powerful grassroots political machine, which clearly knows how to raise money and turn out voters for Meek’s U.S. Senate bid on Election Day.

It’s the kind of boost that Meek needs, particularly in Palm Beach County, where there is a belief among some voters that nobody knows him.

Unlike in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where the Meek name is a household word (some politically astute voters may know Meek’s mother, longtime political powerhouse Carrie Meek), but many are unaware that Kendrick Meek is a United States congressman.

When a reporter recently asked black and white voters in Palm Beach County how much they know about Kendrick Meek, many asked, “Who?”

Others seemed ashamed to admit they know nothing about him. Meek’s congressional district includes a large portion of Miami-Dade County and a small section of southern Broward County, but none of Palm Beach County, where voters are not as familiar with him.

The situation presents a great challenge for the congressman because in statewide elections, Democratic candidates look to win by big margins in the three South Florida counties in order to offset Republican strongholds in the rest of the state.

There are 371,000 registered Democrats in Palm Beach County, and political strategists say it’s a critical area for any candidate hoping to win a statewide election. If Meek does not become more visible in Palm Beach County, Gov. Charlie Crist could steal away many Democratic voters from him, political analysts say.

Crist, who earlier this month severed his ties to the Republican Party to improve his chances of winning as an independent, is in the race for the Senate seat with Republican former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Democrats in Palm Beach County know Crist well, and some of his recent decisions – including his veto of a Republican legislative measure that would have linked teacher pay to student test scores – appeal to some Democrats.

Meek cannot afford to lose those votes to Crist if he wants to win, according to political strategists. Several polls show Crist drawing considerable Democratic support, and leading Florida’s three-way Senate race, with Rubio second and Meek third.

But at a “Meet and Greet” event that took place on May 14 at the South County Civic Center in Delray Beach, Meek officially introduced himself to Palm Beach County voters, and cautioned the crowd of 300 not to be fooled by Crist’s decision to run as an independent.

“I think it’s important to understand, ladies and gentlemen, that I am running in a 3-way race in the general election against two Republicans! The governor changed his party affiliation, but he didn’t change his views. People need to remember that,” Meek told the crowd.

Many in the audience said Meek has the right message, but added that he must hit the pavement and become more visible to people in Palm Beach County. Both black and white people in the county share the same sentiment.

Janice Botsko, 68, who is white, said there’s a reason Meek is not well-known.

“I think he’s very accomplished. I can tell you he has the Democratic platform, and he actually works on it. And he’s a good human person. He’s not well known because he’s not a bad guy. He’s the real deal. There’s no ‘star’ about him. Look, they made Sarah Palin a star, and she can’t spell ‘go,’” she said.

Addie Greene, executive director of the Palm Beach County Caucus of Black Elected Officials and a former Palm Beach County Commission chairwoman, said voters and Meek share the blame in his lack of  recognition in Palm Beach County.

“In Palm Beach County, they don’t know him,” Greene said. “But it’s your responsibility to get to know your elected officials. On the other hand, Kendrick should have made himself known in this district if he knew he was going to run for the Senate.”

Mark Siegel, chairman of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach County said, “I'm not so concerned that he's not well known yet. He will be well known by the time of the primary election on August 24, and after that.”

Marcia Andrews, a candidate for School Board of Palm Beach County who supports Meek’s Senate bid, has attended numerous events with the candidate, and said she believes the people know him, but they just want to talk to him and hear more from him.

Tubby Stayman, a white senior citizen who was at the Delray Beach event, however, said her friends don’t know him at all.

“I live in Palm Beach County and nobody ever heard of him,” Stayman said. “Many of our friends say they absolutely don’t know him. Never heard his name.

Her friend, Jane Abrams, said Meek needs to take a cue from President Barack Obama:  “He needs to go into the churches, just like Obama did. He needs a grassroots campaign.”

Both ladies, however, said Meek has their support.

“I will work very hard on your behalf,” Meek told the group. “But I need your help in letting other Floridians know I’m there.”

So far, Meek has spent little time wooing die-hard Democrats in the vote-rich condo belt of Palm Beach County. But when asked about his dilemma there, Meek said it’s still early. 

“It’s May. And I don’t know any campaign that peaked too soon and won the election. I’m going to work hard. I’m going to be throughout the state of Florida. I’m going to be dedicated. We will have people knocking on doors. The ads will start,” Meek said.

Meek is confident and optimistic.

“This election is a very, very winnable election,” he told the Delray Beach audience. “I feel pretty good, based on the turnout here today.”

Photo by Carol Porter. Kendrick Meek