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Sen. Mel Martinez (R) Sen. Mel Martinez (R)

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Legacy Content / NEWSMAKER PROFILE

Sen. Mel Martinez (R)

August 7, 2009

Melquiades (Mel) Martinez, a Republican, was elected Florida's junior senator in 2004. In December 2008, after just four years in the Senate, he surprised many in his party by announcing that he would not seek re-election to a second term in 2010. "My decision is not based on re-election prospects, but on what I want to do with the next eight years of my life," he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and said he wanted to spend more time with his family. The announcement came after several polls showed him with some of the lowest approval ratings among senators, a result of positions he has taken that angered both conservatives and moderates in the party and possibly also because of his close association with President Bush.

Martinez grew up in the Cuban countryside, near Sagua La Grande, where his father was a veterinarian. In February 1962, after a 16-year-old neighbor was shot by a firing squad for dealing with the underground, Martinez's parents sent him to the United States. He traveled to Florida under the aegis of Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic Church program that brought 14,000 unaccompanied children to the United States. He stayed in a camp along the St. John's River west of St. Augustine and then was taken in as a foster child by an Orlando couple; he spoke very little English at the time. Martinez attended Orlando Junior College and worked at a Publix supermarket. His parents were finally able to join him in 1966, and he bought them a used Chevy to drive. He transferred to Florida State, graduated from its college and law school, and practiced law in Orlando with Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick's firm.

A Democrat in college and law school, Martinez became a Republican in 1979. As one of the few bilingual lawyers in town, he attracted many Spanish-speaking clients. He became a wealthy personal-injury plaintiffs attorney and was head of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers. He started a law practice with his college roommate, Ken Connor. Connor ran for governor in 1994 as an anti-abortion-rights Republican and asked Martinez to be his running mate. Jeb Bush won the primary with 46% of the vote, and Connor finished fifth with 9%, but Martinez got noticed. In 1998, he ran for chairman of the Orange County government and, in a nonpartisan three-way race, won by a wide margin. In 2000, he co-chaired George W. Bush's Florida campaign, and after the election, Bush appointed him secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

 

As HUD secretary, Martinez set up a $1.7 billion tax credit program for investors who were building affordable housing and a $1 billion program to help 650,000 low-income families come up with the money for down payments. He increased spending on Section 8 housing vouchers from $12 billion to $18 billion, but his attempt to streamline the closing process for home purchases was unsuccessful. During his tenure, Martinez traveled extensively and was constantly available to Spanish-language media, speaking not only about HUD programs but also in defense of the administration's domestic and foreign policies in general.

When Democratic Sen. Bob Graham came up for re-election in 2004, he announced his plans to run for president. Although he ultimately withdrew from the presidential contest, his decision set off a pitched battle for his Senate seat. Democrats nominated Betty Castor, a former state legislator from Tampa, who was elected state education commissioner in 1986 and 1990 and later president of the University of South Florida. On the Republican side, White House strategist Karl Rove met with Rep. Katherine Harris to discourage her from entering the Senate contest. She was Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 presidential vote recount and had become a lightning rod for the Democrats. Meanwhile, GOP senators were encouraging Martinez to throw his hat in the ring, but he had his eye on running for governor in 2006. It seemed a natural fit for his executive experience. In December 2003, he resigned as HUD secretary and announced he was entering the Senate race. He quickly raised enough money to be competitive.

In the GOP primary, Martinez faced former Rep. Bill McCollum, who had lost a Senate bid to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2000, and businessman Doug Gallagher, who had his own money but no name recognition. It was a fractious contest, with heavy doses of negative campaigning. McCollum attacked Martinez as a trial lawyer and as a "failed" HUD secretary, and Gallagher spent $6.3 million on ads calling his opponents "the M&M boys" and citing his business accomplishments. Martinez's ads attacked McCollum as "anti-family" because he supported embryonic-stem-cell research and said he was appeasing "the radical homosexual lobby" because he supported a hate crimes bill. In a debate, McCollum called the ads "despicable" and said that Martinez was "unfit" to serve. But Martinez won big, with 45% of the vote. McCollum finished with 31%, and Gallagher with 14%.

In the early fall, polls showed Martinez and Castor locked in a dead heat. There was plenty of contrast between the candidates on issues--the Iraq war, abortion, stem-cell research, Cuba, tax cuts, Social Security, and education. Both sides spent plenty of money: Martinez, $12.8 million; Castor, $11.4 million. But it was a tough environment for getting messages through to the voters. Florida's airwaves filled up with ads from the presidential candidates and from backers and opponents of a medical malpractice ballot measure. Four hurricanes that swept through the state dominated the local newscasts. Martinez accused Castor of going soft on a "terrorist cell" at the University of South Florida and ran an ad featuring a retired immigration agent criticizing her. Castor called the ad "despicable" and depicted herself as independent and Martinez as a rubber stamp for Bush. She also ran ads charging Martinez with ethical improprieties at HUD.

On election night, the returns showed a very close race, and Castor declared that a recount would be needed. The next morning, however, when more of the returns had come in, she conceded. Martinez had won by fewer than 100,000 votes, 49%-48%. Castor led 57%-41% in the Gold Coast, and the Interstate 4 corridor produced a 49%-49% tie. Martinez won 56%-42% in the rest of the state In the Senate, Martinez sat on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, where he advocated legislation to overhaul the mortgage process for consumers and implement policies he had backed at HUD.

In his maiden Senate speech in February 2005, he defended Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who was under fire for the dismissal of U.S. attorneys around the nation. Martinez expressed disappointment that Bush did not use his 2006 State of the Union speech to challenge Cuba for its undemocratic practices, and he introduced a bill that would deny visas to foreign entities that help Cuba develop its oil exploration program. In 2005, he took a lead role on the bill seeking federal judicial review of the case of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman who was at the center of a right-to-die battle among members of her family. But Martinez was embarrassed after he unknowingly handed Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a memo, drafted by one of Martinez's staffers, that mentioned the political advantages presented by the case.

Martinez worked with New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, then-chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on a compromise bill to open up a large section of the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling. Concerned about Florida's beaches and tourism industry, Martinez negotiated a ban on drilling within 125 miles of the Florida Panhandle and 235 miles of Tampa and Naples. In 2007, with Democrats in the majority on Capitol Hill, Martinez teamed with Democrat Bill Nelson, Florida's senior senator, to block the energy bill unless it barred further exploration off the Florida coast. In September 2008, they accepted a bipartisan plan to allow drilling at 125 miles, rather than 50 miles, off the state's coastline.

Martinez took some stands against Bush administration policy. He voted to override the president's veto of a water bill that provided $2 billion for Everglades restoration, and he tried to delay a White House proposal to cut $3.9 billion from Medicaid payments to hospitals. He supported other administration policies, including the Republican version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the troop surge in Iraq.

As the Senate's only immigrant, Martinez took a lead role on immigration legislation in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, he and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., worked out a compromise that established requirements for illegal immigrants to legalize their status depending on the length of time they had been in the U.S. Martinez warned fellow Republicans that they would alienate Hispanic voters with anti-immigrant rhetoric, but conservatives attacked him. Backers of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep immigrants out sent bricks to his office. The Senate passed the immigration bill in 2007, but without enforcement provisions that a majority of House members wanted.

Later that year, Martinez and other senators tried to draft a comprehensive bill that would include tougher enforcement of immigration laws, but also provisions for guest workers and a path to citizenship for illegal workers. Opponents went to work trying to weaken the guest-worker elements with proposals to cut the number of allowable visas in half and to sunset the guest-worker program after a certain period. Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., finally yanked the bill from the floor. In June, Martinez and other bill sponsors brought it back with a tweak that attempted to satisfy the opposition: Illegal immigrants would have to go back to their country of origin before seeking legal status. But the bill got insufficient support and died. Throughout the debate, Martinez came under fire from fierce opponents of the bill. Florida polls showed his approval rating hovering between 42% and 37%--not reassuring numbers for an incumbent.

In January 2007, Bush chose Martinez to chair the Republican National Committee, and he accepted. As chairman, he spoke frequently for Republican positions on Spanish-language media, but he drew repeated criticism on talk radio for his stand on immigration, which opponents derided as "amnesty" for illegal aliens. He also found it difficult to stay in touch with the voters in his large, multi-media-market state. In October 2007, he abruptly resigned the chairmanship. All the while, Martinez continued to raise money for his re-election campaign and in August 2008 published a book, A Sense of Belonging: From Castro's Cuba to the U.S. Senate: One Man's Pursuit of the American Dream. His poll numbers remained low, however, and late in the year, he announced his intentions to vacate his Senate seat.

In January 2009, former Gov. Jeb Bush, still enjoying high retrospective poll ratings, said he would not run for the seat. In February 2009, GOP Gov. Charlie Crist entered the contest rather than run for re-election. Another Republican contender was former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio. Among Democrats, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek was the early frontrunner.

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