Meek s links to cigar maker raise questions
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek touted legislation expanding health insurance for poor kids in late October when he joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a Liberty City clinic, praising the push to help children.
"If this is not an American value, I don't know what is," the Miami Democrat said.
That same month, Meek joined other Democrats to assail Republicans who were blocking the measure, taking to the House floor to charge that 616,000 kids in Florida would go without healthcare because of GOP opposition.
But behind the scenes, Meek, a member of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, helped Miami cigar maker Jorge Padron get a private meeting with top House Democrats - including Pelosi - so Padron could lobby against the higher cigar taxes that were proposed to partly offset the cost of expanding the program.
Months later, Padron hosted a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for Meek at his company headquarters in Miami.
Meek and Padron said they've known each other for years and that the reception was not a reward for securing a meeting with Pelosi and committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat. In fact, Padron was unsuccessful in persuading Democratic leaders to reduce the cigar tax, though the entire bill was later vetoed by President Bush.
The public and private roles Meek played in the bitterly partisan debate over the health insurance bill were revealed partly in a recent story in Cigar Aficionado magazine, featuring photos of the Democratic rising star in a dark, pin-striped suit, holding a stogie.
"I thought that the tax increase on the handmade cigar industry went a little bit too far," Meek told the magazine. "Well, not a little bit too far, it went too far. This would have hurt not only a lot of businesses in South Florida but also those countries where the tobacco comes from."
Asked why he would take a seemingly contrary stance by voting twice for the legislation, Meek explained that expanding healthcare was vital, adding, "We knew it was going to be vetoed." (Indeed, Bush twice vetoed the bill, saying it would have expanded healthcare to "higher-income households while increasing taxes.")
Daniella Levine, president of the Human Services Coalition, a Miami nonprofit that vigorously lobbied for the bill, agreed that cuban cigars tax hike was excessive. Federal taxes on cigars would have jumped from 5 cents to an average of $3 per cigar, an increase of about 6,000 percent.
"It's not a bad thing if Congressman Meek is able to broker a deal and bring to the Democratic leadership some personal awareness of the issue that's worthwhile," Levine said. 'But was it said, `We're going to contribute to your campaign if you do this for us?' You don't know what goes on behind closed doors."
Padron said he did not recall how much money was raised at the "cigar reception" honoring Meek. Fundraising reports, however, show Meek collected at least $50,000 from cigar manufacturers and related companies in December 2007, the month Padron held the fundraiser.
"He did not do us a favor," said Padron, who does not live or work in Meek's district. "He understands the situation with the cigar business and was just helping us relay the message . . . We have a relationship that goes back many years."
Padron has contributed to Meek's campaign since at least 2004 and Meek said Padron and the other cigar makers were aware that Meek supported the children's health insurance legislation when they asked him for help in getting face time with Rangel to plead their case.
'They said, `We know your position on [the bill], we just want to be heard,' " Meek said. "This wasn't a sit down with R.J. Reynolds and Altria and their 40-something lobbyists on the Hill. These are folks we have right here in our community."
Meek noted he's the only Florida member on the Ways and Means Committee - which oversees tax policy - and agreed with the cigar makers that the proposed tax was onerous. But he said he believed the Democrats' signature legislation was critical. National Democrats even paid for Spanish-language radio ads criticizing Miami's three Republican members of Congress for siding with President Bush's veto.
"My advocacy on behalf of the legislation is well documented in the congressional record," Meek said. "At the same time, I am sensitive to the fact that business owners facing a giant tax increase want to make sure that legislative leaders understand exactly what is going on. [The insurance program] is going to pass one day with my vote, but don't want the small businesses in Florida and in my community run out of business."
Padron said the meeting with Democratic leaders was a valuable opportunity to explain that the cigar industry in Miami is mostly family-owned businesses. Padron's father started the Little Havana factory about 45 years ago after leaving Cuba.
"We can't afford lobbyists, so we do our own talking," Padron said. "We explained to them that we weren't opposed to contributing to the legislation, but cigars were bearing the brunt of it. We're not big tobacco. A tax like that would decimate our industry."
Sunday, March 23, 2008