Martinez’s short Senate tenure leaves questions about his legacyby Palm Beach Post Staff | August 7th, 2009
This story was printed in the Aug. 8 edition of The Palm Beach Post.
By MICHAEL C. BENDER and DAPHNE DURET
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
ORLANDO — By ending an already brief U.S. Senate career Friday, Mel Martinez risks being remembered for little more than just getting elected.
“You don’t get an opportunity to leave a big footprint in the sand unless you’ve been there a while,” said former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade.
History will remember Martinez, a Republican, as the first Cuban-American elected to the U.S. Senate, a feat he achieved in 2004 by obliterating his primary opponents with record-setting fund raising and outlasting Democrat Betty Castor in an election night nail-biter.
Several politicians and strategists said Martinez, whose announcement comes a day after his vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice, will always be held in high esteem among the state’s critically important Hispanic voters.
Hispanics account for one of the fastest growing groups of swing voters in the state.
“When he ran for the U.S. Senate, the conventional wisdom was that a Hispanic could not get elected statewide in Florida,” said Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio, the first Hispanic Florida House speaker. “He dispelled all of that.”
But as a candidate recruited by then-President George W. Bush, friends say, Martinez never displayed passion for the long hours away from his wife and children that were necessary to make a mark in a relatively short time.
“I don’t know if he was ever able to get in a groove to fully master the responsibility of representing a state with 10 media markets and 67 counties and still balance that with his family life,” said Kirk Fordham, the finance director of Martinez’s 2004 campaign.
With his wife, Kitty, standing at his side, Martinez said Friday that his only motivation for resigning was his “desire to move on and get on with the rest of my life.”
“They have made many sacrifices during this time of public life,” Martinez said about his family.
As a candidate, Martinez waged an aggressive campaign. His primary campaign targeted GOP opponent Bill McCollum as a tool of the “radical homosexual lobby.” In the general election, Martinez tried to paint Castor as lax on terrorism with a slew of negative television ads.
But several people said Martinez was a more natural consensus builder, an instinct he may have ignored when he accepted another invitation from President Bush — to become head of the Republican National Committee.
Elected officials usually avoid that partisan role, and Martinez dropped in polls in Florida for the decision to make his party such a high priority. Martinez also resigned that position suddenly in 2007.
But Martinez also paid for his attempt at bipartisanship.
His effort in 2007 to craft an immigration plan to both secure the country’s borders and address its millions of illegal immigrants was ultimately defeated by Republicans. The effort earned him the nickname “Amnesty Mel” from some conservatives.
His resignation caught many by surprise Friday, despite months of rumors.
To drive home the point there was no pending private-sector job behind his resignation, Martinez said Friday he promised his wife a “60-day gap” in which he would not do much of anything.
“You might find me at Lake Eola feeding the pigeons or something,” he said.
Staff writer George Bennett contributed to this story.
Tags: Mel Martinez