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Martinez: A Look Back

mel-martinezCuban-born Melquiades “Mel” Martinez was elected Florida's junior senator in 2004 – the first Cuban-American senator, and from a state with a huge, politically active Cuban-American population. He leaves the Senate with the announcement Friday that he'll be replaced for now by lawyer and political operative George LeMieux, a close ally of Gov. Charlie Crist.

Martinez leaves a legacy shortened, and possibly overshadowed, by his decision to leave the seat early, but one that included bipartisan work on immigration reform and a final vote in favor of the nomination of the first Hispanic to the U.S. Supreme Court in Sonia Sotomayor.

He nearly wasn't a senator – he defeated Democrat Betty Castor by fewer than 100,000 votes, 49 percent to 48 percent in 2004 after easily defeating Bill McCollum in a nasty Republican primary.

Martinez, who came to the United States as a child when his parents sent him out of Cuba in Operation Pedro Pan, has said he plans now to return to Orlando, and hasn't made his future plans known, other than denying rumors he wants to be president of his alma mater, Florida State University.

Martinez's legacy in terms of the legislation he supported is less partisan than many Republicans may have hoped, not really a big surprise given that he started his career as a Democrat and is a former president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers.

That's not to say he wasn't partisan at times – in 2007 he accepted President Bush's request to chair the Republican National Committee, one of the most partisan jobs in politics. And in 2005, when Martinez was taking a lead role in a bill seeking federal judicial review in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, Martinez's partisan scheming was exposed when he unknowingly passed to a Democratic colleague a memo, drafted by one of his staffers, that spelled out political advantages that arose out of the Schiavo situation. According to the Washington Post, Martinez voted with a majority of his Republican colleagues 84.5% of the time during the current Congress.

Here's a look at his legacy by way of some key votes Martinez made in his slightly less than one term as a U.S. Senator.


-The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be Supreme Court Justice, 2009: YES.
Martinez was one of a small number of Republicans to vote for the Obama nominee, and one of the first to come out saying he would support her. It was one of Martinez's last major votes in the Senate.

-The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus bill, Feb. 10, 2009: NO.
Martinez voted with the GOP position to reject President Obama's federal stimulus legislation. The bill, H.R. 1, passed.

-Reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program, February, 2009: YES.
In a time when many are railing against government health care, Martinez earlier this year bucked others in his party and took a stand in favor of a popular government-funded health care program, one that pays states to insure children. Martinez supported a bill that continues the program through 2013 – legislation that had been vetoed twice by President Bush. Martinez had voted against expansions of the program earlier.

-Immigration Reform: When Congress was pushed to take up immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, Martinez was the only immigrant in the Senate. In 2006, he helped work out a compromise that established requirements for illegal immigrants to legalize their status, against the grain of the mainstream of Republican thought. Martinez endured attacks from within his own party, but warned his fellow Republicans that the party was risking alienating Hispanic voters. At his office, Martinez received a shipment of bricks from backers of building a wall along the Mexican border. Ultimately, Congress passed watered-down compromise immigration legislation, but Martinez was stung by the failure of a comprehensive Senate reform bill in the summer of 2007, after having taken a stand that cost him a lot of support back home. Martinez worked closely with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts on the legislation. He was widely thought to have paid a heavy price in his own party for having supported legislation most of his party attacked. Some Republicans called him “amnesty Mel.” Just in July of this year, Martinez bucked his party on immigration a final time, voting against an amendment to require about 700 miles of reinforced fencing along the border with Mexico.

1 Responses »

  1. A lot of people dug deep to help pay for Mr. Martinez' Senate seat. Now they're wondering if they can get their money back, because they certainly haven't gotten their money's worth.