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Kendrick Meek: “I don’t support raising the retirement age.”

The race in Florida for the US Senate is among the most unique and interesting in the country. We saw in 2006 in Connecticut a three-man race, but the Republican Alan Schlesinger quickly became an also-ran, and Joe Lieberman benefited. In this race, each candidate claims a plausible path to victory; tea party conservative Marco Rubio, Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. The curious math involved has each candidate pointing to 38% as the key number required for victory, and aides to Meek’s campaign, which has trailed consistently, insisted he was on a path to getting there. In the latest poll, Meek picked up Democratic support significantly, reversing a 54-36 deficit to Crist and turning it into a 54-36 gain. His ads, which are just coming on air (they aren’t reflected in the polling), alternately attack Crist as a flip-flopping man without principle, while playing a progressive message:

I’m the only one who’s fought against developers draining the Everglades. The only one against offshore oil drilling before AND after the BP spill. The only one against privatizing Social Security. The only one who’s pro-choice. Who took on George Bush. Who’s fought for middle class tax cuts. Against higher credit card fees. And to raise the minimum wage.”

This emphasis against Crist seeks to consolidate the Democratic base and eventually pivot to capturing some of the middle, although so far the main beneficiary has been Rubio. If Meek can reach a tipping point on electability, however, he feels he has a chance to get to 38%.

I had the opportunity to talk with Rep. Meek yesterday, and explore his policy plans as well as his campaign.

On the campaign. Meek expressed real confidence in the race, considering his spot in the polls. “Voters are starting to pay attention,” he said, and he believes that as they continue he will be able to win over Democrats. In addition, the fact that the Florida Republican Party is awash in scandal and dissension, with Rick Scott ascendancy in the Governor’s race and the indictment of former party chair Jim Greer, plays to Meek’s advantage. Crist will have no party apparatus for turnout, while Meek will benefit from a statewide coordinated campaign. “I’m the only one who has been tested in this race,” said Meek, referring to his trouncing of Democrat Jeff Greene in the primary. “The statewide debates and the primary really helped me show the voters who was standing for them.”

On Charlie Crist. Meek said that Crist has been practicing a strategy of “convenience not conviction,” and that his courage to stick to his beliefs would pay off. “The CEO of one of the largest states in the nation playing with blocks is not leadership,” Meek said, referring to Crist’s first TV ad, which entirely consists of him rearranging the letters of “Democrats” and “Republicans” to spell “Americans.” Meek’s main argument is that he’s the only Democrat in the race against two lifelong conservatives.

On Social Security and taxes. Meek makes a point in his ads of being against the privatization of Social Security, something both his opponents have expressed support for in the past. “It’s security, not something that should be on the stock market,” he said. That’s not the main threat facing the program, which is more under attack from the cat food commission on benefit cuts or raising the retirement age. “I don’t support raising the retirement age… there would be 40% of our seniors in poverty in Florida without Social Security,” Meek said. He then pivoted to his preference for middle class tax cuts to spur demand, “like we had in the Clinton years.” The connection that he made here was that “only job growth will shore up Social Security,” making the implicit argument that job growth is the best antidote to deficits. Meek seemed skeptical of the deficit commission as a whole. “Just because they recommend something doesn’t mean it will happen.”

On the Obama recovery package. Meek expressed support for the series of ideas the President threw out as job creation measures. He’s actually been carrying a permanent extension of the R&D tax credit in Congress. “The stimulus stopped us from a Depression, that’s what it was designed to do,” Meek said, noting the help for state fiscal woes, investment in infrastructure, and Making Work Pay tax credits in the package. He wanted to take a further look at new measures like write-offs for equipment investment and the National Infrastructure Bank.

On housing. Meek hails from a sand state, one of the four or five experiencing the worst of the foreclosure crisis at this time. I asked him about the failure of the HAMP program and what we need to do to fix it. He replied that he’s seen the devastation that foreclosures cause in his own community and his Congressional district. “I’ve heard about the perseverance it takes in the program, how people have to send in forms over and over, how people sometimes get in deep with two financial institutions who are buying and selling the loans.” Meek thinks that every case is individual, and that the government needs to do a better job of both matching up borrowers with the program best for them, and to force some real workouts between banks and borrowers. “We can’t incentivize the banks much more.”

I asked Meek about the disturbing report in the New York Times about foreclosure-only courts in the state of Florida, which are speeding foreclosures through the system, sometimes without the lender even having possession of the title of the house on which they’re foreclosing. Meek was unfamiliar with the report but immediately looked it up on his iPad, and promised to look into it further.

On the historic nature of his candidacy. Like in the rest of the country, demographics will play a major role in this race. If African-American and Hispanic turnout peaks in 2010 like it did in 2008 for Barack Obama, Meek has a much better chance. He hoped his unique story would help drive that. “I’ve been working hard for the last year and a half… trying to become the first African-American Senator by popular vote from below the Mason-Dixon line,” he said. “I hope that would bring in some voters who want to be a part of that.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen