Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) is one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent junior Members, due in large part to early and prolific fundraising for the party and his fellow Democrats.
Only in his third term, Meek has contributed more than $1,000,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and an additional $86,000 to individual Democratic candidates since 2002.
To bring in that much money, Meek also has had to spend a lot — and he’s done it in style.
A Roll Call review of Meek’s official campaign committee’s filings with the Federal Election Commission since 2003 reveal the Florida lawmaker’s preference for using high-end meals, accommodations and trendy hot spots across the country to raise that money. For Meek, that’s just part of the game.
“To be a part of the discussion and the art of politics is going to cost money,” Meek said in an interview Wednesday. “I do need to travel to Democratic events throughout the country. When you go to New York and you’re meeting with labor leaders or whoever, you have a car service, you have to stay at a hotel, you have to say, ‘Hey, are you available for dinner?’ You can’t say, ‘Let me meet you on the street and let’s have a hot dog.’ People have different approaches.”
If the disclosures are any indication, Meek’s approach is to do business over steak. Since 2003, he has spent nearly $30,000 in high-end steakhouses alone, including 47 listed disbursements at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in downtown Washington, D.C. He also has listed disbursements at the Silver Slipper (“Tallahassee’s Premier Steak House”), Smith & Wollensky, The Forge and Houston’s, all located in the Miami area, Charlie Palmer Steak and The Capital Grille in Washington, and Russell’s Restaurant in Vail, Colorado.
Meek has spent an additional $51,000 since 2003 at other restaurants that rate among finer dining establishments. For instance, he spent $240 at Nobu Sobe in Miami Beach, Fla., in February 2007; $420 at Cipriani’s New York in January 2006; a total of $1,200 on two occasions at Silquis Lounge & Restaurant in Opa Locka, Fla.; and $572 at Ortanique in D.C., among several others.
He has used his campaign coffers to purchase more than $12,000 in flowers, as well as at least $15,300 on limousines.
Local favorites include Lounge 201 on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, where Meek listed five “catering” expenses in 2006 totaling $3,212, and he has spent nearly $12,000 since 2003 at the members-only National Democratic Club on Capitol Hill, where he said he often takes visiting constituents or campaign contributors.
Other disbursements also serve as reminders of Meek’s relative youth. Despite turning 40, he is still an active member of the Democrats’ Thirty-Something Working Group. “I’m part of the ‘something’ part of it,” he jokes.
On two occasions he has visited B.E.D. in Miami Beach — a popular restaurant and nightclub among the young and celebrity set for serving its patrons in bed — racking up just more than $1,300 in bills. In May 2006 he spent $1,065 at the Sky Bar, also in Miami Beach, and in September 2006 he spent $300 at Avenue Nightclub on New York Avenue Northeast in D.C during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation annual legislative conference.
When traveling for or hosting fundraising events, Meek often has opted for high-end accommodations. He lists seven disbursements in 2006 and 2007 for $2,400 to Dream Hotel, a deluxe boutique hotel in Manhattan, as well as disbursements to the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina, and the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., which is a members-only private resort, and the Eden Roc Resort and Spa in Miami Beach, among other trips.
Meek said there is nothing unusual about traveling to raise money and noted the owner of Dream Hotel is a donor. “When I go to New York, I stay at that hotel — and I pay for it,” he said, adding that travel is integral to raising money.
“That’s a big part of it, you just can’t raise money from South Florida, though that’s my biggest market,” he said, noting he has upcoming fundraisers in Atlanta and Chicago. “All of this is very important if you’re going to be a major financial contributor to the overall cause.”
He has made four trips to casino hotels in Mississippi, including two trips each to the Grand Casino Tunica and the Horseshoe Casino Hotel, both in Robinsville, Miss., and three trips to Disney resorts in Florida including the Disney Polynesian Resort in Orlando, and the Coronado Springs Resort in Lake Buena Vista.
Meek’s district also was home to Super Bowl XLI in February, and he spent $13,000 in disbursements for tickets he bought to host a fundraiser at the stadium.
There is nothing to suggest that Meek’s spending is improper, but where and how he spends his money is generally more common among senior lawmakers, leaders and committee chairman who are more prone to high-end, big-money fundraising operations.
While Meek tends to spend his campaign funds at trendy and flashy locales, there are no restrictions on where Members can spend their campaign cash — as long as it’s for official campaign purposes, according to multiple campaign legal experts.
“The general rule is you cannot use campaign funds for expenses that you would incur regardless of whether you are a Member of Congress or not,” attorney Jan Baran of Wiley Rein said, citing everyday expenses such as mortgages or groceries.
Outside of those broad guidelines, Members are not restricted in how they spend their money — and the FEC does not regulate taste. “It’s legal. Some people eat and travel better than others,” Baran said.
Added another Democratic campaign finance expert who spoke on background: “If there is a bona fide campaign need for a meal, it doesn’t matter if you go to Morton’s or McDonald’s.”
Meek explained that he keeps an open account at the National Democratic Club, and his regular trips to local places such as Ruth’s Chris are how he has helped build his fundraising operation.
“When you’re building a relationship with a contributor, you take the time to sit down with them and hear their issues, you take the time to let them know how much you appreciate their contribution and continued financial support of your campaign, and that’s important,” he said. “I also put a policy in place early on to pay when it comes down to dinner activities or lunch activities.”
Meek conceded that he was not much of a fundraiser during his years in the Florida Legislature, but he knew that had to change when he was elected to Congress.
“No one loves fundraising but it is just something that’s part of Washington D.C. — to be not only able to build relationships but to help us get into the majority, and also be able to raise the necessary money to let your colleagues know, and your Democratic leadership know, that you’re willing to be a player at whatever level they would like you to be a player at,” he said.
Meek credits Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), noting her unprecedented effort to raise money and spread the Democratic message. “That’s something that I’m excited about and want to be a part of,” he said.
His party loyalty and fundraising prowess has in turn put him in Pelosi’s good graces, and her support helped Meek secure a plum seat on the Ways and Means Committee when Democrats took control of the House. The tax-writing committee also is well-known for its capacity to boost a Member’s ability to raise money.
While he currently holds no official role at the DCCC, he would not rule out an interest in the possibility of the DCCC chairmanship at some point. “I would consider just about anything the Speaker would consider me for,” he said. “There’s no secret that I consider the Speaker a friend. … Nancy Pelosi has been a big reason for why I have participated in the way that I have at the DCCC and I will be continuing to do so.”
Meek started a leadership PAC, the Helping Elect America’s Team PAC, late last year, which he said raised more than $50,000 in the previous quarter.
Meek also is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and he said that he is trying to overcome what he described as a widely held belief that black lawmakers are not as adept at raising money. Meek said he runs his campaign operation in a way that lets donors know that he can raise significant money.
“Usually we are not chosen to be the fundraisers because of the historical value of African-Americans being individuals who can turn the votes out versus individuals that can raise money,” he said, arguing that it often is an uphill battle to build a grass-roots, national fundraising donor base.
Meek represents the poorest Congressional district in Florida, but he bristles at the suggestion his campaign spending might make it look like he’s out of touch with his constituents. “I go home on a weekly basis,” he said. “I am one of the most grass-roots elected officials in Miami-Dade County and Broward.”
Meek lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C., during the week, but he and his family regularly travel back to Florida. He has a series of constituent events planned for this weekend, he said. “I go home and I very seldom wear a tie. I’m not ‘Congressman Meek’ there, I’m ‘Kendrick,’” he said. “Losing touch would be not to do the things I’m doing.”
Meek is one of the Democrats’ safest incumbents, which provides him the freedom to raise money to boost the party. He won the seat unopposed in 2002 previously held by his mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek (D), whose Congressional identification card he carries in his wallet next to his own. He also was unopposed in 2004, and faced only insignificant opposition in 2006.