In Fla., Political Insiders Face Wealthy Challengers
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In a number of primary elections this year, wealthy first-time candidates have spent tens of millions of their own dollars and have won. Florida may be about to buck that trend. The state is holding primary elections tomorrow. And two highly successful businessmen who fit the newcomer pattern have run into headwinds.
NPR's Greg Allen is in Miami.
GREG ALLEN: When Florida Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek announced he was running for the Senate seat left open by retiring Republican Mel Martinez, it looked at first as if he would be unopposed. Meek, who's African-American, is the son of popular former Congresswoman Carrie Meek. But Meek suddenly found himself with a serious primary challenger, real estate investor and billionaire Jeff Greene.
Greene jumped into the race and began spending millions on TV ads, portraying Meek as a corrupt career politician, who helped secure federal money for a developer who had his mother on the payroll.
In a recent debate, Greene's attacks put Meek on the defensive.
Representative KENDRICK MEEK (Democrat, Florida): My family has nothing to do with dealing with those issues. Everything that you brought up really doesn't hold water when it comes down to the facts. The fact is that it's been over three years, and no one has questioned me because they don't have a reason to question me.
ALLEN: Although he's new to Florida, moving here two years ago, Greene's become well-known to Floridians in a short time, spending more than $20 million of his own money on ads. They paid off at first with a surge in the polls, but then, Greene's past began to catch up with him. Details emerge about his investment practices, building his fortune by betting on foreclosures through credit default swaps.
Perhaps, even more damaging were the stories about his yacht, the 145-foot Summerwind. Police officials say it tore a hole in one of their endangered coral reefs. While on it, Greene made an unauthorized visit to Cuba, and then, there are his guests, unusual companions for a prospective senator - people like actress Lindsay Lohan and former boxer Mike Tyson. Stories about his yacht have left Greene with a lot of explaining to do.
Mr. JEFF GREENE (Democratic Senate Candidate, Florida): This is some -just a couple of disgruntled employees making up stories. I'm on my -when I'm on my boat, I'm with - we're scuba diving and we're kayaking. We're not - there's no wild parties. And I think that people are trying to associate time I've been on my boat when I've had some different kinds of colorful guests, and they're trying to associate me with that, but I'm...
ALLEN: Most polls now give Meek a solid lead over Greene in the race. The other multimillionaire on the ballot tomorrow in Florida is Rick Scott. He made his fortune as the former CEO of Columbia/HCA and is now running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Scott has spent nearly $40 million of his own money on the campaign -blanketing the state with ads opposing taxes, spending, career politicians, even the plan to build an Islamic center near ground zero in New York City. But like Greene, Scott has seen his lead evaporate. So he's fought back by targeting his Republican primary opponent, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, in a series of attack ads.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man: You can't buy Bill McCollum, but you sure can rent him. Just ask these satisfied customers.
ALLEN: On the screen, the ad lists the names and contributions of business and other special interest groups that have contributed to McCollum's campaign. Many of those contributions have actually gone to independent political committees that have raised money to help McCollum counter Scott's millions. Those groups have produced ads attacking Scott for his role at Columbia/HCA, which after he left paid a record $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Woman: As CEO, Rick Scott profited from the largest Medicare fraud in American history. His hospitals illegally refused emergency room patients who were poor.
ALLEN: Needless to say, all the negative ads have left the public with an unfavorable view of most of the candidates. In the governor's race, that's likely to benefit the probable Democratic nominee Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer.
In the Senate race, whoever emerges from tomorrow's primary, Meek or Greene, will be facing a Republican nominee in Marco Rubio and a former Republican who's now an independent, Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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