Meeks, Gregory 1953–
Gregory Meeks 1953–
A skilled legislator and a conciliator by nature, Gregory Meeks has successfully struck a middle path between the ideological and entrepreneurial wings of the New York City Democratic Party’s African American membership. To some, he represented a new style of political leadership that recognized the need for legislative nuts-and-bolts work without turning its back on the inspirational politics of the past. Elected to the United States Congress in 1998, Meeks represents one of the nation’s largest and most durable middle-class African American communities.
Gregory Weldon Meeks had a long road to travel before reaching a position of political power and influence. The oldest of four children, he was born on September 25, 1953, and raised in public housing in New York’s generally impoverished Harlem neighborhood. His father, a taxi driver, also worked as a handyman in the city’s theater district from time to time, while his mother stayed home to raise her children when Gregory was young. After the children were old enough to fend for themselves, however, she returned to school and earned a college degree.
Meeks was one of those politicians who seemed born to the profession, winning leadership positions in student government as early as junior high school. He graduated from Manhattan’s Julia Richman High School in 1971. Completing his education without delay, he moved on to Long Island’s Adelphi University, from which he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1975, and then to law school at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University. In the spring of 1978, not yet 25 years old, Gregory Meeks was a freshly minted lawyer.
While he was away at school, Meeks’s family had moved out of Harlem to the middle-class Rockaway section in the New York borough of Queens, and after receiving his degree he moved back home to join them. Meeks took a position as Assistant District Attorney in the Queens prosecutor’s office, and got involved in politics at the most local, grassroots level: together with his community-minded mother, Meeks formed a neighborhood association devoted to such issues as street repair. That led to the founding of a political club, first called the Jesse L. Jackson Independent Democratic Club of the Rockaways, and later renamed the Thurgood
At a Glance…
Born in New York, NY, on September 25, 1953; grew up in Harlem neighborhood; married, wife’s name Simone-Marie, two daughters. Education: Graduated from Julia Richman High School, New York City; B.A., Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, 1975; J.D., Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1978. Religion: Baptist.
Career: United States Representative tram New York’s Sixth District, Assistant District Attorney, Queens, New York, 1978–84; staff attorney, New York State Commission on Investigations, 1984-;85; Judge, New York State Workers’ Compensation Board, 1985-;92; elected to New York State Assembly, 1992; won election to two more full two-year terms; elected to U.S. House in special election of February, 1998; member, Banking & Financial Services and International Relations committees.
Addresses: Office —1710 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
Marshall Regular Democratic Club. With black political influence on the rise in New York City, the club was an ideal springboard from which to launch a more substantial political career.
Through the 1980s, Meeks acquitted himself well in a series of public-sector legal jobs; he became a New York City drug prosecutor in 1980, assistant counsel to the New York State Investigations Commission in 1982 (where he worked to uncover the infiltration of organized crime into state government), and a state workers’ compensation judge in 1985. He also established a law office of his own in 1984. Urged by friends in his political circle to run for office, Meeks jumped into a city council primary in 1991. He lost, but the exposure he gained helped him win election to the New York State Assembly the following year.
Meeks served three terms in the Assembly, winning kudos for his hard work on labor and transportation issues. Though he had sometimes backed insurgent candidates during his New York organizing days, in Albany, the state capital, he was a loyal follower of the Democratic Party. Another important result of Meeks’s years in the state legislature was the contact he made with the most powerful black politician in Queens, the Rev. Floyd Flake. Flake, as the U.S. Representative from New York’s Sixth District (including much of Queens), was an influential African Methodist Episcopal minister whose congregation had grown from a membership of 1,400 to over 11,000. He spearheaded economic development in his district, stimulating private-sector investment and the development of new housing.
Flake retired from Congress in late 1997, pleading the need to spend more time attending to the affairs of his church (although he has also been urged to run for mayor of New York in 2001). The race to succeed him was intense, but Flake gave the nod to the newly married Meeks as his successor, and the area’s Democratic party organization followed suit. Nevertheless, campaigning was intense in the months leading up to the special election in February of 1998. Three other major candidates faced off against Meeks for the job.
In typical fashion for New York City, the campaign turned into more of a brawl. One of Meeks’s opponents raised the issue of Meeks having voted for an Assembly bill that would have given nonprofit status to a pro-pedophilia group called the North American Man-Boy Love Association, but Meeks countered that though he found the group’s activities “deplorable and reprehensible,” the bill had been crafted in such a way that the NAACP could likewise have been denied tax-exempt status without it. With the endorsement of the New York Times, which said that Meeks “seems most likely to thrive in the large and competitive arena of Congressional politics,” Meeks won with an impressive 57 percent of the vote.
Meeks’s win attracted notice in part because of the diverse group of supporters he attracted to his corner; it included the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New York’s fire-breathing and organizationally street-smart Rev. Al Sharpton, but also more moderate figures such as Flake and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who told the Times that Meeks was “very smart and extremely hardworking. He’s also a guy who believes in working with all the communities,” Hevesi said, predicting a successful future in Congress for Meeks.
Meeks, who had in fact touted himself as a “bridge builder” during the campaign, said upon his election that “[m]y role, as part of a new generation of African American leadership, is to take us to the new phase of the civil rights movement, that is, the economic development of our community.” Inheriting Hake’s seat on the House Banking Committee, he focused on bread-and-butter issues, winning a large grant for space technology classes at a local community college and bringing in 4 million to rebuild the Queens traffic artery Springfield Boulevard. Early in the year 2000, he found himself under pressure from both sides on the issue of normalizing trade relations with China, a possible boon to New York’s economy but an unwelcome prospect for labor groups. Few doubted, though, that Meeks, fast becoming a seasoned politician, would surmount the problem and go on to win re-election in the fall.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa, The Almanac of American Politics 2000, National Journal, 1999.
Crain’s New York Business, February 7,2000, p. 6.
New York Times, January 10, 1998, p. B3; January 31, 1998, p. A14; February 1, 1998, p. A26; February 5, 1998, p. B5.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.house.gov\meeks\
—James M. Manheim
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