WEST PALM BEACH — The candidates came out swinging this morning, and duked it out to the end.
And The Palm Beach Post helped Jeff Greene and Kendrick Meek, along with two tough questions to start the debate it sponsored between the two Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate.
Greene, a billionaire businessman from Palm Beach, said Meek, the U.S. representative from Miami, should ask Congress to investigate a real estate scandal involving Meek's mother and former chief of staff.
"This culture of corruption and this culture of bribery in Washington needs to end once and for all," Greene said in the opening question of the debate.
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A police investigation of Miami developer Dennis Stackhouse shows Stackhouse paid $90,000 in consulting fees to Meek's mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, and helped a Kendrick Meek staffer buy a home.
Meek sought federal money for Stackhouse's Poinciana Park project. Stackhouse has been arrested. But neither Meek, his mother or chief of staff have been charged in the case.
Meek today denied any wrong doing. He accused Greene of launching political "grenades."
"Nothing that I have done has been improper," Meek said.
Meek returned the volley during the second question of the debate, saying Greene "brought about the destruction of our economy."
"On nights when Floridians went to bed praying that they could save their homes and save the equity in their homes, Mr. Greene was praying they'd lose their homes so he could profit and become a billionaire," Meek said.
Greene, a real estate investor, said he did not regret investing in the credit default swaps, which reportedly paid off by a 10-to-1 margin as foreclosures skyrocketed in Florida and across the country.
"I wasn't doing any trades against homeowners. This is fiction coming from Kendrick Meek," Greene said.
Meek opened the debate trumpeting an endorsement from West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel and said he was the only candidate in the room who has never run for federal office as a Republican. Greene ran for the U.S. House in the 1980s as a Republican.
"I will be the only candidate that will stand up for the middle class and provide tax cuts for the middle class and small business," Meek said.
Greene painted himself as a political outsider, reminding voters about the state's historic unemployment, its foreclosure crisis and the ongoing oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We are failing and failing and failing," Greene said. "I offer the people of Florida a clear choice."
Late in the debate, in an answer to a question about the stimulus bill, Greene's answer prompted heat from Meek.
"I'm the only person running who's a proven job creator, been creating jobs, running businesses and been successful," Green said.
"Jeff Greene, you ARE special interest," Meek retorted.
And Meek's outrage grew, prompting the only applause in a debate where the moderator had asked for none.
Answering the stimulus question, Greene said Meek's success was in getting a job for his mother with Stackhouse.
Meek retorted, staring at Greene rather than the camera, "How dare you attack my mother. She served in public office while a single mother . . . because she wanted to serve."
Greene responded, saying he wasn't attacking Meek's mother, but Meek, for allowing special interests.
In answering a question offered by Post reader Steve Okun of Tequesta about their position on what should be done with the illegal aliens presently living in the United States, Greene called them illegal in conversation, Meek undocumented.
Meek said he supported a "pathway" to citizenship and deportation for criminals. Greene did not offer a specific solution, saying only that he supported a "humane policy."
Both said they support the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that any child born in U.S. is a citizen.
Asked about their personal carbon footprints and the cars they drive, Meek said his family drove a Ford hybrid and a minivan. Greene said he has a Cadillac Escalade, but added that he rides a bicycle around Palm Beach. He did not mention during the debate, but acknowledged later, that he owns three homes and a private jet.
On nuclear energy, Greene said, "If we can do it safely, I'm in favor of it. If we're going to do it like oil rigs ... absolutely not."
Meek said, "I support the recent nuclear power initiatives in Florida. I think its important we learn from the failures in the past."
On gay issues, both candidates say they support adoptions by gays, support repealing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and support social security benefits for gay partners. Neither candidate said he supported gay marriages, although Meek said he has opposed any attempt to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage.
Polls show Meek, 43, and Greene, 55, in a tight battle in the race for the Aug. 24 primary. The winner of the race will advance to face Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent candidate, and Marco Rubio, the expected Republican nominee, in the November general election.
The Democratic primary has been largely overshadowed this election season as Crist and Rubio clashed in a high-profile GOP primary. Crist dropped his party affiliation in May after Rubio pulled away in the polls, tapping into the conservative tea party activism.
But Greene revived interest in the primary when he jumped into the race and dumped about $5 million into six different television ads. The commercials helped Greene, a political newcomer, quickly close the gap with Meek.
Tensions in the race have escalated, too.
Greene, with help from Joe Trippi, the campaign manager for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid, has attacked Meek as a career politician. Greene says the state has lost thousands of jobs on Meek's watch. He also blames Meek for the housing crisis, saying he sponsored seminars to help Floridians secure risky mortgages.
"Kendrick Meek led the people of Florida over a cliff," Greene spokesman Luis Vizcaino said in a statement this morning.
Meek, meanwhile, says Greene is ill-prepared for public office. He accuses Greene of making millions by "making risky bets against middle-class homeowners." Greene invested in credit default swaps that reportedly paid off 10-to-1 as foreclosures skyrocketed.
"Greene investments helped wreck the middle class," Meek campaign manager Abe Dyk said in a statement before the debate.
Staff writers Andrew Abramson and Carlos Frias contributed to this story.