Meek steps into national spotlight through disaster-relief trip to Haiti

Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) suspended his Senate campaign and traveled to Haiti, which raised his national profile and resulted in a surge of press coverage.

Meek, whose Miami-based district houses Little Haiti, traveled to the earthquake-ravaged country Saturday to help with relief efforts. 

He’s also done numerous television interviews, a change of pace for a candidate who’s seen his airtime eclipsed by a competitive primary on the Republican side.

“I haven’t been campaigning since this hit,” Meek told MSNBC from Port-au-Prince Monday. “I was actually supposed to be in St. Petersburg today at the MLK parade, but what’s needed here is making sure that we do it right the first time, because Florida is going to be the first state that’s going to feel our failure.” 

His campaign also canceled an endorsement event in Jacksonville set for this week.

Meek represents the largest Haitian-American community in the country and has a long history of championing the poor Caribbean nation. The United Nations has called the 7.0-magnitude earthquake the worst “humanitarian crisis” it has seen in decades — up to 200,000 are feared dead.

More than 350,000 Haitians live in Florida.

Meek flew commercial from Miami to Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republican, on Saturday. There he hired a local driver and traveled overnight to the Haitian border. He crossed over and then continued on to Port-au-Prince’s airport, arriving early Sunday morning. 

Meek later met up with the Miami Dade Urban Search and Rescue team, and used his iPhone to film them rescuing a trapped 2-year-old girl. 

Some observers say Meek has much to gain from moving to the forefront of the relief effort. He’s traveled to Haiti on previous occasions in his role as a congressman.

“I think he wants to solidify [Haitian-American] support and be able to mobilize them in November,” said Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida. “His aggressiveness on this issue — of Haitian relief — is a critical part of his get-out-the-black-community-vote [effort]. … Black turnout is critical to a Democratic victory in the Senate.”

The Haitian community in Florida has undergone a “political maturation" in the last decade, said MacManus, pointing to the three Haitian-American lawmakers now serving in the State Legislature. “In close races, any kind of cohesive bloc vote is helpful,” she said.

The Obama administration announced Friday it would grant Haitians in the U.S. illegally temporary protective status — something Meek advocated.

The four-term lawmaker faces token opposition in the Democratic Senate primary. On the Republican side, Gov. Charlie Crist and former state House Speaker Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOn The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week Trump declares national emergency at border Democrats veer left as Trump cements hold on Republicans MORE are the leading contenders for the nomination.

Meek and his supporters insist there’s nothing political about his efforts.

“If we don’t keep security, if we don’t keep the humanitarian efforts going, and we don’t do this right, the Coast Guard’s going to be very, very busy, because you have over 600 Haitians that are already in the Bahama islands that have tried to make it to the U.S.,” Meek told MSNBC.

More Haitians will try to flee for the United States if the country remains devastated, he added. “That’s the reason we have to get on this right now.”

Meek’s campaign said the congressman was unavailable for an interview given the communication problems in Haiti. They did not have a return date. 

“His whole focus is on being a congressman and doing whatever he can to help the people of Haiti,” said Abe Dyk, Meek’s campaign manager. “He’s not focused on politics.”

Dyk pointed out that when the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, Meek’s website started accepting donations for disaster relief. 

“This is a time for everyone to come together,” he said. “This is not about politics. It does not make sense to bring politics into this.”

Other Democrats echoed that assessment. 

“I don't believe there is an ounce of political motivation behind [Meek’s] actions this last week,” said Steven Shale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist. “He has been a tireless advocate for Haiti throughout his career in Congress, so his role this last week is quite natural.”

He added, “Yes, Floridians will get to see him in a leadership role, though I know Kendrick would happily send the cameras away if it would end the suffering in Haiti.”

His potential general-election opponents are avoiding criticizing Meek directly.

“We view this matter in humanitarian terms,” said Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Rubio’s Senate campaign.

The Crist campaign declined to comment.