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Obama model is tough to replicate

Kendrick Meek tours Jimmy’s Place, a workaday diner on Northwest 7th Avenue, with an easygoing familiarity. He’s on his home turf -- and it shows. He squeezes hands and arms and banters with customers, some of whom have known him for years. If every corner of Florida could be like this one, he’d cruise to a Senate seat.

Of course, it isn’t. And the four-term congressman’s bid to become the first African American senator from this state remains in serious trouble. He’s behind in the polls, lagging in fundraising and facing a difficult primary this month against a billionaire.

If Meek doesn’t reach the Senate, the chamber will open its next session without a single black member for the first time since 2004.

But he’s not the only African American candidate to struggle this year. The difficulties come as something of a surprise just two years after the historic election of Barack Obama, which for some signaled the arrival of a new generation of Democratic African American candidates who, like Obama, would shatter long-standing barriers.

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“What the president did bring about was empirical evidence to show that people of goodwill can come together and vote for the best candidate,” Meek said over omelets in the Miami diner. “The president showed that it can happen.”

But for black candidates looking to follow Obama’s lead, that has yet to come to pass.

In Alabama, Artur Davis, once considered a Democratic rising star, was trounced in his attempt to become that state’s first black governor. In South Carolina, Alvin Greene has become a punch line in his out-of-nowhere bid to unseat Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. And in Georgia, African American senatorial candidate Michael Thurmond faces an uphill battle against incumbent GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Nor have things been easy for the nation’s two African American governors: New York’s David Paterson, faced with tumbling popularity ratings, declined to seek reelection. And in Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, another Democratic bright light, is in danger of being voted out of office.

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Obama largely has avoided spending political capital on campaigning, whether for African American candidates or otherwise. But some in the black community believe he holds a special obligation to advance other black office seekers.

“I think Obama can do more for Meek,” said Katherine Tate, a political science professor at UC Irvine. “We need more cheerleading from the president for Meek and for Democratic candidates in races in minority communities.”

History, however, is being made in other ways. This year ironically has seen a surge of African Americans running for office from a more unlikely direction -- the right.

Record numbers of black candidates have run this year as Republicans. And if one, Tim Scott of South Carolina, wins a congressional seat in November, he’ll become the first African American Republican elected from the Deep South in more than a century.

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Another congressional hopeful, Allen West, is running a competitive race in South Florida as the first African American “tea party” candidate.

Scott, a member of the South Carolina state Legislature, defeated the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond in the GOP primary. But he deflects questions about race and history.

“People are more concerned with the issues than they are anything else,” Scott said.

The candidacies of Scott and West are a departure from what has long been the norm -- the African American Democrat like Meek, whose political power is generated from districts heavy with minority voters.

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In that sense, they may be more transcendental politicians, along the lines of Obama, despite the fact that both men strongly disagree with the president’s policies.

“We wonder in black politics if we’re nearing the end of the ‘black empowerment,’ ” said Tate, citing a time when African Americans became big city mayors and encompassing Jesse Jackson’s 1984 run for president.

“I think there is a feeling that black candidates can win now without heavily emphasizing black issues in order to mobilize the black community,” Tate said.

In that respect, Obama’s victory was a model for success. But as often, the ones who are attempting to replicate it are Republicans such as Nikki Haley, an Indian American who could be elected governor in South Carolina. Should she win, she’ll join Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal as another governor with South Asian heritage.

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In the West, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, another Republican, could become the nation’s first female Latino governor, succeeding Bill Richardson, a Democrat. In nearby Nevada, Latino Republican Brian Sandoval is poised to take the governor’s office.

In Southern California, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez is being challenged by Van Tran, a state lawmaker and Vietnamese immigrant who recently won a tea party endorsement. In Florida, if Meek survives the Democratic Senate primary, he’ll face Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican, along with Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist.

The surge of Republican minority candidates in part reflects changing demographics among some population segments, such as the Vietnamese, that are not part of the traditional Democratic base and may vote more conservatively.

In some ways, Meek is steeped in old-school black and Democratic politics. His mother, Carrie Meek, was a Miami trailblazer, a civil rights pioneer who was the first African American elected to the House from Florida since Reconstruction. When Carrie Meek retired, her son, a former Florida state trooper, succeeded her in what has been drawn sharply as a majority-black district.

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As a result, Meek has rarely had to face a tough reelection race. But the Senate contest has been different, and his path to the Democratic nomination was complicated by a late challenge from Jeff Greene, a deep-pocketed businessman who has pounded Meek with TV ads. Greene has contended that Meek cannot compete statewide.

Moreover, Crist’s independent bid has helped push Meek to the margins. Polls show the governor capturing the votes of some moderate Democrats, with Crist benefitting from the name recognition that Meek lacks. Meek hopes to make up for that with a statewide bus tour that kicked off Wednesday in his bid to get over “the first hurdle” -- the upcoming primary.

“I have to show that there’s a constituency out there that will vote and has already voted for me,” he said.

One man who could come to Meek’s rescue is Obama. He’s scheduled to come to Florida in August for a Miami fundraiser, but it remains unclear whether the president will exert himself.

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“People ask me that all the time, if the president wanted to come and campaign for you, would you let him? Absolutely,” said Meek, who strongly supported Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential run.

Merle Black, an expert on national politics at Emory University, said Obama’s policies might have actually harmed Meek’s prospects. “Because of Obama, African American politicians are even more identified with liberal politics,” he said.

Still, Black said Meek’s failure to advance later this month would be a surprising development in the wake of Obama’s victory in 2008.

“What does that say about the White House,” he said, “if an African American candidate can’t even win a Democratic primary?”

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joliphant@latimes.com


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