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Capital Connections

Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek leverages cigars and politics
By Alejandro Benes | From Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008
Capital Connections

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.

"Anyone who could stand up and say 'I'm a Virgo' in a group of people, at least half of whom he probably hadn't met," Ryan remembers with a chuckle, "I knew this was gonna be my buddy. We crack each other up. We take our jobs very seriously, but we don't take ourselves so seriously. We want to show we can have fun."

Meek is soft-spoken and easy with a laugh. At 6 feet 3 inches and 245 pounds, he maintains a football player's physique, but has a baby face that can fool some into thinking that Meek can't be, in the words of one political ally, "as ruthless as he needs to be, which is a good thing up here [in Congress]." Meek, who is dyslexic, is smarter than he sometimes lets on, say some journalists and others who have followed his career in politics.

In reality, Meek began his career in politics by learning all he could from his mother. The young Kendrick, at times, would fall asleep under Carrie Meek's desk when she served in the Florida legislature. Meek, who, in 1982, became the first black woman elected to the Florida Senate, had already been elected to the U.S. Congress when her son won a legislative seat in Tallahassee himself. He would serve with distinction, in a manner of speaking, by being a thorn in the side of then-Gov. Jeb Bush, especially on issues of equal access to education. In 2000, he organized a 25-hour sit-in to protest Bush's effort to end affirmative action in state contracts and college admissions. Meek draws considerable incentive from the challenge of building a better future for his children and the children of America.

"Every morning I take my daughter to school. That's what motivates me every day," Meek shares. "I bought a new hybrid SUV because my daughter kept talking to me about global warming." The congressman smiles the whole time he talks about his children. He has a daughter, Lauren, and a son, Kendrick Jr., with his wife, Leslie A. Meek, a District of Columbia administrative law judge.

Meek is, by all accounts, a liberal member of Congress, but that doesn't prevent him from connecting across party or ideological lines. Or from making sure that his constituents are heard. On Capitol Hill, Meek was able to leverage connections to make sure that the cigar industry, especially what he calls the "family businesses," got its message heard in the right places, by the right people, as Congress considered the so-called SCHIP (State Child Health Insurance Program) legislation in 2007, which would have raised the tax on each cigar to as much as $3.

"We felt there was a need to tell people in Congress the impact on the handmade cigar industry," explains Jorge Padrón, president of Padrón Cigars Inc., headquartered in Meek's district in Miami. "Their response was positive. They listened to our side. It was critical to present our side. Kendrick Meek was important. He got us a meeting with Speaker Pelosi and with [House Ways and Means Committee] Chairman Charles Rangel."

Padrón and other cigar manufacturers made several visits to Washington to press for a lower tax on handmade cigars. In his Miami office, Padrón explains that the industry was not against SCHIP, but that there should be a different solution. He credits Meek with understanding what was at stake.

"I think Kendrick is a practical guy. He gets along with people," Padrón says. "He hasn't forgotten where he came from. I've known him for many, many years and he's the same now as when we met. He understands that we're a family business and he understands the importance of tradition and family values."

Meek says it was important to him that his party's leaders understood this as well. [For the record, members of the cigar industry, including some who visited Capitol Hill, have contributed money to Meek's campaign coffers.]

"The goal of government is not to put small businesses out of business. Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Rangel are not about putting small businesses out of business," Meek explains in relating why he facilitated meetings between House leaders, congressional staff and representatives of the cigar industry. "I thought that the tax increase (from 20.7 to nearly 53 percent) on the handmade cigar industry went a little bit too far. Well, not a little bit too far; it went too far. This would have hurt not only a lot of businesses in South Florida, but also those countries where the tobacco comes from. The Dominican Republic would have felt a direct effect of such a large tax [increase]. Also Honduras. Also Nicaragua." Meek says that one of his top priorities in Congress is making sure that the country's tax system treats small businesses in a fair and equitable manner.

Still, the SCHIP legislation containing the tax increase on cigars was sent twice to the president. Twice, the president vetoed the bill. Meek voted in favor of the bill both times, citing that the legislation was vital—extending health care to more children—even if it contained difficult provisions. Yet Meek notes that SCHIP had no chance of ever becoming law. "We knew it was going to be vetoed," he explains, a tacit recognition that the final battle over the tax increase was unnecessary in this case.

House sources say that the meetings held on Capitol Hill with members of the cigar industry have laid a foundation for discussion in the next Congress. Meek believes the dialogue between the industry and Congress needs to continue if any tax on cigars to help pay for SCHIP is going to be "fair and equitable."

Dialogue is a tool Meek believes in strongly and one that has worked for him throughout his legislative career. "You know, when we [Democrats] won the majority [in Congress in 2006], we weren't supposed to do anything for Republicans after the way they treated us for so many years. But that's not the way I work and that's not the way we do things in South Florida," Meek says. Meek goes on to relate how when he first got to the Florida statehouse, he began working with South Florida Republicans to get things done for the area they all represented. There, Meek developed a relationship with then-state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, now a U.S. representative from South Florida's neighboring 25th congressional district.

"In fact," Meek remembers, "it was Mario Diaz-Balart who gave me my first Padrón [cigar] when I was in the state assembly. I really enjoyed it. That Friday—the members would go home on Fridays—Mario took me to visit the Padróns in the old office and I bought a box of cigars. I think they were No. 1s. I'm a Churchill guy."

Meek calls Diaz-Balart, who is a conservative Republican and Cuban American, a "good friend of mine" and adds that the two are easily able to talk with each other about issues that concern South Florida and the nation, though they don't always agree.

"We do have disagreements," Diaz-Balart says, "but he's a really, really good guy. He's a good friend, a very good friend. I trust him entirely. He's a person that I can tell anything and know that he will keep it to himself." Diaz-Balart laments that he and Meek don't have as much time in Washington as they used to in Tallahassee to share a cigar. He remembers that the last time he and Meek were on the same plane back home to Florida, Meek gave him a Padrón Anniversary. "Kendrick is a tireless advocate for the people he represents and for the people of South Florida," Diaz-Balart says. "He has great integrity and a great sense of humor, but he is tough. He is definitely a star."

Diaz-Balart believes that Meek's instincts are so good that when it came to Cuba policy, "Kendrick didn't really have to be convinced about the plight of oppressed peoples. Kendrick Meek has been a strong supporter of a free Cuba."

"I'm in favor of the embargo on Cuba," Meek says, taking a position contrary to that of many in his party, but in line with the louder and politically influential Cuban Americans in South Florida. "It's working, but not as fast as everyone would like."

Meek's strong support includes a refusal to smoke Cuban cigars. "I'll smoke other cigars," Meek confides as lunch ends at Smith & Wollensky, "not just Padróns. I'll smoke an Ashton every now and then. I just won't smoke Cubans."

As he is about to walk out of the restaurant into a blustery Miami Beach day, Meek cradles a Padrón Anniversary between two fingers in his left hand and begins to catch up with the waiters. At the door, Meek shakes hands and cradles the manager's elbow in the hand with the cigar. Meek is engaged as the manager says business is pretty good, and as he does with everyone, listens sincerely, as if he might learn something. "You can't just like people," says Meek about the business of politics. "You have to love people."

Maybe even more than a good Churchill.

Alejandro Benes is a writer based in Southern California.

Photographs by Brad Nelson