Congressman Kendrick Meek relishes a good cigar -- Padrons are his favorite, he told Cigar Aficionado magazine in a 2008 profile. He hosts an annual cigar party and is known to hand out cigars to members of Congress and their staff, and the cigar industry has helped fund his recent campaigns, the magazine reported. Padron Cigars, a longtime family business, is headquartered in Little Havana in Miami.
Meek's U.S. Senate Democratic primary opponent, Jeff Greene, attacks Meek for his ties to the tobacco industry in a campaign flier accusing Meek of standing with special interests.
Specifically, Greene wrote in a campaign flier that hit mailboxes around July 23, 2010, that Meek was "#1 in Florida in taking tobacco cash and then opposed a tax on cigars that would have helped pay for children's health care." Greene this week introduced a new TV ad that stated "Meek lobbied for big tobacco against children's health care."
We decided to examine the campaign flier. Did Meek rake in more money from the tobacco industry than anyone else in Florida and then oppose a tax on cigars that would pay for children's health care?
Greene's campaign cited the Center for Responsive Politics -- an organization that analyzes campaign donations -- as part of its proof, so we turned there first to check tobacco donations for Meek's 2008 Congressional race and 2010 U.S. Senate race. The website shows that Meek received $77,325 from the tobacco industry in his 2010 race and $63,727 in his 2008 race. Those amounts put him at No. 1 among Florida candidates for House or Senate and Florida members of the House and Senate.
But Greene's flier said Meek was "#1 in Florida" and did not specify whether that was only among federal candidates. There is no simple way to thoroughly check tobacco donations to all candidates across Florida including for state Legislature.
Next we checked Meek’s voting record on the U.S. Library of Congress website, particularly in 2007 and 2009, on bills that would raise taxes on the tobacco industry to help pay for children's health care. Meek voted for the bill each time – but the background is more complex.
While Meek touted the law, behind the scenes he helped Miami cigar maker Jorge Padron get a meeting with top Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi so Padron could lobby against higher taxes, the Miami Herald wrote on March 24, 2008. Padron later hosted a fundraiser for Meek.
The Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2007 would have increased excise tax rates on cigars, cigarettes, cigarette papers and tubes, smokeless tobacco, pipe tobacco, and roll-your-own tobacco. Meek voted for the bill, referred to as the Small Business Tax Relief Act in the House, on Feb. 16, 2007. President George W. Bush vetoed the bill. Meek voted again for the bill on Oct. 25, 2007, and again Bush vetoed it.
The taxes on cigars would have soared from 5 cents to $3, a 6,000 percent increase, the Miami Herald wrote. That tax hike was too high, Meek said in the 2008 article, but he also supported the health care legislation by voting for it.
The Miami Herald wrote, "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. ... My advocacy on behalf of the legislation is well documented in the congressional record. 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 [I] don't want the small businesses in Florida and in my community run out of business.'"
Meek also explained his concerns in the Cigar Aficionado magazine profile.
"The goal of government is not to put small businesses out of business," Meek told Cigar Aficionado. "Speaker Pelosi and Chairman (Charles) Rangel are not about putting small businesses out of business. I thought that the tax increase (from 20.7 to nearly 53 percent) on the handmade cigar industry went a little bit too far. 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. The Dominican Republic would have felt a direct effect of such a large tax [increase]. Also Honduras. Also Nicaragua."
In 2009, the children’s health care legislation came up again, this time to raise the federal excise tax on cigarettes 61 cents, from 39 cents a pack to $1.01 a pack, and raise taxes on other tobacco products. Meek voted in favor of the bill, along with nearly every Democrat in the house, according to a Jan. 14, 2009, press release from Meek. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in February 2009.
Cigar makers credited Meek with helping reduce the amount of the tax on cigar manufacturers, according to a Jan. 15, 2009, Tampa Tribune article. The article quoted Eric Newman, president of the Cigar Manufacturers Association of Tampa, as saying Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor "and Meek were very helpful and supportive of our positions."
So where does that leave us?
Meek was clearly No. 1 in tobacco donations among Florida candidates for House or Senate in his 2008 race and 2010 race and is at the top among Florida's members in the House and Senate. But Greene's flier didn't specify that the No. 1 label applied only to federal races and there is no simple way to check the tobacco dollars given to candidates across the state for various offices.
Greene also claimed that Meek "opposed" a tax on cigars that would have paid for children's health care. Meek thought that the 2007 version was too high of an increase for businesses and he scored key meetings for a cigar maker with member of Congress, but he voted for the legislation anyway -- twice that year. Meek again voted for the version that passed in 2009 when the cigar industry credited him with helping reduce the amount of their tax burden. We recognize he worked to lower the amount of the tax, but we think it's misleading to say that Meek "opposed" a tax when he voted for it three times. Politicians are ultimately judged on their votes, and that's why Meek’s votes for the legislation is crucial information here. We considered both parts of Greene's claim and rate it Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.