Black Caucus Profiles: Rep. Kendrick Meek

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As part of a series on power players in the Congressional Black Caucus, Farai Chideya talks with U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL). Meek is co-chair of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Thirty Something Working Group (though Meek is 40) and a new member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

At age 40, Kendrick Meek is one of the youngest members of Congress. But the Florida Democrat has been tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to co-chair her 30-Something working group. Yeah, baby, 40 is the new 30-something.

Anyway, Democrats hope Meek can help them reach young Americans. I recently spoke with Meek as part of our series on power players in the Congressional Black Caucus. Is he up to reaching disaffected young Americans, he told me yes. And he's hitting the road to find them.

Representative KENDRICK MEEK (Democrat, Florida): We'll be out throughout the country, listening to young people. We're blogging. We're Web casting, we're YouTubing. We're doing all the things that we have to do to reach out to them. I believe that 18 year olds and 20-somethings and 30-somethings want to be heard. They want to hear action, and we're going to give it to him.

CHIDEYA: Why do you think that this 30-something working group can do that older members of Congress can't do?

Rep. MEEK: Well, A, many of us - well, not including me - but many of us are still paying student loans back. We know what it means to be in credit card debt. Just like in Washington we listen to seniors on Medicare's Prescription Drug Part D program, we have to listen to young people as it relates to the environment, global warming mainly, interest rates, an opportunity to buy homes.

A number of economic issues that young people are facing now we're going to try to address, and the 30-Something working group, we're going to put a special focus on it. We have the support of incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi to continue to give young people in America a voice in the Congress. And I think action will speak louder than words.

CHIDEYA: Now you've also got another hat, incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. What's your top priority leading that foundation, of course linked with the Congressional Black Caucus? And also, do you believe that the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation should be more active in pushing a new version of the civil rights agenda?

Rep. MEEK: Well, we've already started with a new version of the civil rights agenda by renewing the Voting Rights Act, being a part of that dialogue that took place in the 109th Congress. The new civil rights is making sure that young people and people of color have not only access to capital, but to be a part of trading that capital that young people need to be able to access.

Also, one of the major initiatives that we're pushing now is to have more in terms of color on Capitol Hill, and also provide more scholarships to allow people of color in the 43 districts that we represent, including the entire state of Illinois, to have access to college through scholarship opportunities to help them with their tuition.

So we look forward to not only we're building this generation but the next generation now, the 110th Congress.

CHIDEYA: What kind of legacy do you want to pass on in terms of giving something to younger people who might look up to you from your district, telling them that they have a chance? And let me fold that into your other position. You have so many hats.

You're joining the Ways and Means Committee at the House, and that deals with issues of poverty among others. What do you hope to pass on as a legacy in terms of dealing with some of the issues that must be tough in your district and other districts?

Rep. MEEK: Well, A, people look for good government. And that's what we want to give them. I think what's also important to look at the work of the Ways and Means Committee has to do. A, we have to be able to allow the federal government negotiate with drug companies to bring prices down; not to make the program a bad program for those that are involved, but to improve it.

And I don't think that's something that's dealing with just seniors. I think a number of 30 and 40-somethings, and some 20-somethings, are using prescription drugs daily for whatever the situation may be with their personal health.

I think it's also important for us to look at the tax code here in the United States as it relates to those that are attending college, and even those parents that are paying for college - I think the next generation or this present generation because I've lived in a generation that folks are always talking about the next generation, and I'm saying what about the right here and the right now. I'm looking at ways that we can incentivize young families to do the things they need to do to be able to make sure that their children or grandchildren have better opportunities than what they've had. So this is more of an open book outside of the 100-hour agenda. We have this war in Iraq that we have to deal with. We have a number of issues that are going to be on the plate.

The country right now is not in a great position as it relates to finances or as it relates to good government.

CHIDEYA: Congressman, specifically on Iraq, you served on a House Armed Services Committee. You've been outspoken in your support of the troops. The president is ready to break what the Iraq Study Group in order a troop surge or a temporary increase, not a withdrawal. Do you agree with his position?

Rep. MEEK: At this present time I don't. I haven't had an opportunity to read the president's position in print. From what I've seen and heard, I think it's out of step with what the House, I know Armed Services Committee has been talking about, even under Republican control.

And I think it's out of step with the people of the United States. Everyone else is pulling out and taking the training wheels off the Iraqi government and saying that you have to stand for yourself. We're the only country that are saying that we need to send more troops.

And I think that the Congress will play a very strong role in that. I know that the Senate has called a hearing with the incoming secretary of defense, and I believe that will be eye opening and fruitful for the entire country or for the world. I look forward to the future conversation. I look forward to being a part of not just conversation and not just hissing from Congress, but action from Congress.

CHIDEYA: Congressman Meek, thanks so much for joining us.

Rep. MEEK: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: U.S. Congressman Kendrick Meek represents Florida's 17th district. He is co-chair of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's 30-Something working group and a new member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

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