Crist names ‘maestro’ LeMieux to fill rest of Martinez’s U.S. Senate termby Dara Kam | August 28th, 2009
LeMieux — a fellow Republican whom Crist has dubbed “the Maestro” — would serve as a placeholder, keeping the Senate seat warm until Crist can run for the post himself in the 2010 election.
“I know his soul,” Crist told reporters and others at the old state capitol building (now a museum) in Tallahassee.
Early on, Crist had ruled out appointing himself to the Senate seat, a gambit that could have alienated the voters he still would need to face next year. Crist also bypassed potential elder-statesman figures such as Jim Smith, a former Florida attorney general and secretary of state, or former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale.
LeMieux said he is resigning immediately as chairman of the influential law and lobbying firm Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart. The firm has been representing U.S. Sugar Corp. in negotiating a proposed $536 million land deal with Crist’s water managers, although LeMieux has said he’s had no role in the talks. LeMieux also has been sitting in on the state’s casino gambling negotiations with the Seminole Indian tribe, even after leaving Crist’s office last year.
LeMieux, a Fort Lauderdale native, said he will move next week to Washington, where his top priorities will be health care and the budget deficit.
Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which conducts frequent surveys of Florida voters, said he doubts the LeMieux pick will have any impact on next year’s GOP primary or the general election.
“Assuming he doesn’t do anything that the voters of Florida are horrified by and therefore blame Crist for … there’s nothing to change the dynamics of the Senate race,” Brown said.
Quinnipiac’s last Florida poll, conducted this month, found Crist with a 55-to-26 percent lead over former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary race.
Martinez praised LeMieux today as “bright, capable, and an accomplished administrator,” and said he expects “a smooth transition.”
Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Sid Dinerstein had immediate praise for the pick.
“George LeMieux is a highly qualified person,” Dinerstein said. “I was one who thought he would run for attorney general. He’ll certainly be a fine representative and he’ll be a good filler and of course he has a very good relationship and trusting relationship with the governor.
“I think this doesn’t change the dynamic,” he added. “I actually thought the governor might pick someone who’s seen as a more solid conservative, like a Daniel Webster, to try and change the dynamic of the Senate race.”
But county Democratic Chairman Mark Alan Siegel was more dismissive:
“Crist is appointing someone from his family. … This is a placeholder. And I’m sure, unlike Sen. Martinez, he’ll actually vote wrong on everything. I’m sure his votes will be there merely to burnish Crist’s conservative credentials to improve his position in the primary.“
State Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman added: “This glaring example of political cronyism is the last thing Florida needed while we face these tough economic times and the Congress is tackling critical issues such as health insurance reform and global warming. In appointing LeMieux, someone who has made millions over the past several years selling access to Crist to the highest bidders among Tallahassee’s special interests, Charlie Crist once again put his own political ambition above doing what is right for Florida.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is also running for the Senate seat next year, similarly denounced the selection.
“The Governor added another edition to his campaign team at taxpayers’ expense,” Meek said in a news release. “George LeMieux doesn’t represent Floridians facing economic challenges — he represents privileged clients with expense accounts far removed from the realities Floridians are facing.”
And the Democratic National Committee said: “With Florida’s economy in shambles, Charlie Crist could have selected a Senator who would be able to hit the ground running in Washington to tackle the problems that face Floridians. In appointing a political crony as a placeholder until he can run for Senate himself, Charlie Crist is using the Governorship to advance his own political ambitions rather than advancing the lives of the Floridians he was elected to serve.”
Florida’s Democratic U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, struck a less partisan tone, however.
“There are some very important and immediate issues facing Florida, such as health care and protecting the military’s testing and training ranges in the Gulf of Mexico,” Nelson said. “I intend to have a good personal and bipartisan relationship with the new senator, as I have had with Mel Martinez.”
Shaw, for whom LeMieux once worked as an intern, said: “George is a very, very capable guy and I’m sure he’ll do a good job. He’s a quick study, he’s articulate, he’s very close to the governor. I think it’s a good choice.”
State Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has known LeMieux since the mid-1990s, when both were active in Broward County Republican politics.
“He’s a smart guy, politically savvy, a hard worker. There’s nothing negative to say about George. … He’s certainly smart enough to wade through the issues” in the Senate.
Besides being chief of staff in the governor’s office, LeMieux also held the same position in Crist’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign and earlier served as deputy attorney general under Crist.
While not registered as a lobbyist with Gunster Yoakley, LeMieux headed the firm’s Tallahassee office and was seen as instrumental in generating lobbying and government-relations business for the firm.
He published an online LeMieux Report political newsletter. His clout was evident this year when, after the annual legislative session ended, he hosted a wrap-up discussion at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach that drew many local movers and shakers.
LeMieux entertained the idea of running for Florida attorney general earlier this year after Crist announced he was running for the Senate and Attorney General Bill McCollum announced plans to run for governor.
LeMieux is married with three sons.