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Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek leverages cigars and politics
Posted: April 16, 2008
From the April 2008 issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine
At the orientation for new members of the U.S. House of Representatives elected in 2002, rookie representatives got up and introduced themselves. They told of their accomplishments. They related their credentials. When his turn came, the man sent to Capitol Hill by Florida's 17th congressional district was a bit more succinct. "I stood up and said, 'My name's Kendrick Meek, and I'm a Virgo,' and I sat down." The comment was met largely with silent puzzlement. "I'm a jokester," Meek explains, "I love to try to be funny every now and then." The 41-year-old Democratic congressman was simply following advice his mother had given him. "My mom told me the first rule of politics is 'be yourself.'" Meek's mother, Carrie P. Meek, is a political icon in Florida who served 10 years in the House. When she announced her retirement in 2002, Kendrick B. Meek announced his intention to run for the seat. He was unopposed. For Meek, who grew up in Miami, being himself also means not running away for the sake of political expediency. "I'm not one of these people who hide that I smoke cigars," Meek shares over lunch at Smith & Wollensky in Miami Beach, even though he admits he might be criticized for smoking cigars. "The thing about America is that everyone has an opinion. What I do personally is a different situation. When I get free time, I like to enjoy a nice cigar." Meek has also used cigars as a sort of diplomatic and political currency. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and also the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He has been known to hand out cigars to fellow members of Congress and staff members who might enjoy them. Meek even hosts an annual cigar party to bring people together.
"It's a social event. People get to know one another and share great cigars," Meek explains, adding that the next one will likely not be held in the Capitol.
One of the first moves by the new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, after the Democrats won a majority in 2006, was to ban smoking near the House floor. Members can still smoke in their offices and Congressman Meek has been known to offer that opportunity, along with fine Scotch, to special visitors.
"I personally like to smoke on the western balcony of the Capitol, the one that looks out at the Washington Monument, if it's warm enough outside," Meek says. "Sometimes you have to go on a walkabout in the middle of the day and think about policy."
As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Meek has traveled to distant parts of the world in which the United States is represented by the military. He has presented boxes of Padrón cigars, his favorite, to various luminaries and military commanders, including the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, U.S. Gen. David H. Petraeus. Toward the end of 2007, Meek found himself on the balcony of his room at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, enjoying a Padrón 1926 Serie 80 Years. He calls it his most recent favorite cigar experience.
"I was sitting on the balcony and my wife came out to talk to me," Meek recalls. "She saw that my eyes were half-closed and just said, 'I'll leave you alone.' It really helps to have that moment to be one with the cigar. "
Meek was in Africa for meetings with the U.S. military command on that continent, focusing on how to build better relations with African nations. It's a mission that suits the personality and philosophy of the former college football player and former Florida highway patrolman—he became the first African American to rise to the rank of captain on the state force. Meek's coach at Florida A&M once dubbed the future congressman the team's "clubhouse lawyer" and often used the star linebacker/defensive lineman to resolve locker room disputes. The skill continues to serve Meek well as one of Speaker Pelosi's chief lieutenants.
"Kendrick and I are kind of ambassadors to people 40 and under," says Ohio Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, who works closely with Meek. "We're trying to show how we'll lead into the next decade or so on issues like energy, alternative energy and health insurance." Like Meek, Ryan is a former football player and a cigar lover. "Kendrick is the go-to cigar guy," Ryan explains. "Cigars are a part of the reason we get along."
Meek and Ryan have become something of a regular act on YouTube. Using video and humor, they try to explain what's going on behind the scenes in Congress in a way that's different from the usual appearance on Sunday-morning TV. Back at that orientation session, Ryan was the only one who laughed when Meek introduced himself.
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