TAMPA, Fla. — U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek was letting his steak and eggs sit untouched as he wandered from table to table at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop on Sunday with a clipboard full of petitions.
The Miami congressman is unknown in this part of the state and was asking folks to help him in his quest to become the first Florida Senate candidate to make the ballot by petition. Meek is seeking the seat that Republican Mel Martinez is giving up after one term.
John Cardona, 60, seemed impressed with the enormity of the effort when Meek told him he needed more than 112,000 voter signatures.
"It's a lot of work, but we have a year to do it. It's going to be a real exercise," Meek told Cardona, who signed a petition along with three friends dining at the Cuban restaurant. "You all enjoy your breakfast. I have some at the table that's getting cold, but once these petitions hit the table, I couldn't stay (seated)."
Meek, a Democrat, could make things easier for himself by simply writing a nearly $10,000 check next year to get on the 2010 ballot. It's not like he can't afford it -- he's already put $1.8 million into his Senate campaign account. But he believes the petition drive, a far more expensive and time consuming option, will help his campaign in ways that go beyond the symbolism of the effort.
It will give him a huge list of names -- and e-mail addresses -- that he can tap as he raises money, seeks volunteers and gets a message out; it will give campaign volunteers something to do at a time when most voters aren't thinking about the November 2010 election; and it will start raising his name identification as he and volunteers speak directly to voters.
"It's very smart and it does help build a team," said David Johnson, a Republican political strategist. "Every name that you get is gold."
Johnson was a campaign adviser in 2004 to then state Sen. Daniel Webster, the last person who tried to qualify for a Florida Senate race by petition. At that time, he needed 93,018 voter signatures, and he came up just short. While Meek has to collect more signatures because the state's population has grown, the law has changed, allowing more time. Webster only had about three months.
"With Kendrick doing this and starting so early, I have no doubt that he can be successful," Johnson said. "He's got plenty of time to do it and he's got the money to get the ball going."
So far, state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, is the only other major candidate in the race to replace Martinez. Former Republican House Speaker Marco Rubio of West Miami has started an exploratory committee, but has said he is waiting to make an official announcement to see if Republican Gov. Charlie Crist seeks the seat or runs for re-election.
Gelber's campaign has also discussed qualifying by petition, said campaign senior adviser Steve Schale, but he hasn't begun a drive.
Meek, who is traveling from Pensacola to Key West as he starts the drive, has experience with petitions. He organized the effort to put class size limits on the 2002 ballot. As he kicked off his Senate petition drive with an event in downtown Orlando on Saturday, he repeatedly stressed to three dozen volunteers that the forms had to be filled out correctly; otherwise political opponents might challenge them.
"Usually when you have activities that promote democracy, there's always some trickery in the rules," Meek said.
In Orlando, Chris Dunwody drove more than 200 miles to offer his help to Meek. Last year Dunwody was a field organizer for Barack Obama and helped register 10,775 University of Central Florida students and direct 350 volunteers on Election Day. He said the petition drive will definitely help Meek.
"It's a genius idea," he said. "With this, not only do you get a petition, while you're talking to them, you're asking them if they want to volunteer, if they want to get involved, if they want to donate."
Personal contact does help. Cardona is a Democrat who voted for Crist and who will consider voting for him again if he runs for Senate. But now he says he will also consider Meek even though he didn't know a thing about him until the congressman approached with his clipboard.
"He's getting out there and touching the people," Cardona said. "Now I'll keep my eyes open and whenever he's got something going on, I sure will pay attention. He's going from people to people -- hands on hands. You can't ask for anything more than that."