By AMIE PARNES | Scripps Howard News Service
Mel Martinez sat at a table in the senators’ dining room recently and played with a fork, twisting it round and round like he was powering up a time machine.
Suddenly the lawmaker from Florida was that lanky 14-year-old boy, perched on a corner of his parents’ bed, listening to the urgency in his father’s voice and to life-altering news that would send him to a place where he didn’t know the language _or a soul, for that matter.
“It is time to go,” he remembers his father telling him. Life in Sagua La Grande, a town on the northern coast of Cuba, was deteriorating rapidly and the communist country was simply too dangerous a place for a Catholic boy, his father explained.
Less than a year later, Martinez would board a plane as part of “Operation Pedro Pan,” a program run by the U.S. Catholic Church that would separate him from his parents and send him and thousands of other Cuban children to Miami, to freedom.
“It shook my world,” he said, closing his eyes.
Now the Republican senator is back in real time, at a table with his communications director, two tables away from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., three tables away from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
“I never would have thought I’d be sitting here in the senators’ dining room,” said Martinez, 58. “Maybe as a guest of someone. Maybe. But as a senator? No way.”
But Martinez _ the first Cuban-American senator _ is here in Washington with legislative aides who tiptoe around him, a schedule that moves at a dizzying speed and frequent cell-phone calls from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom he calls “a chum.”
Even though he is a freshman senator, he has quickly become a recognizable face under the prestigious marble dome and in the corridors of power. In recent days, he led the charge in the Terri Schiavo case, introducing the legislation and then guiding it along the way during four tumultuous days of debate on Capitol Hill.
Fellow senators said Martinez was the voice of reason, a man who reached across party lines and convinced Democrats to back his cause and send the severely brain-damaged woman’s case to federal court.
His immigrant success story wafted through the Spanish-speaking streets of Little Havana in Miami, in orange grove fields on the state’s Treasure Coast and the packinghouses in Immokalee.
“His story was a success story for the Cuban-American community,” said George Gonzalez, a political-science professor at the University of Miami.
In his first month in office, Martinez delivered the first Spanish-language speech on the Senate floor, as he spoke in favor of nominating Alberto Gonzales as the new U.S. attorney general.
Before he was sworn in as senator, he served as U.S. housing secretary under President Bush. While he was making plans to return to private life in his hometown, Orlando, Fla., he got a call from Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. Santorum asked Martinez if he would consider running for the Senate, if Democrat Bob Graham decided to vacate his Senate seat.
“I was burning up the phone lines,” Santorum recalled. “I thought Mel would be an excellent candidate and I thought he’d be a help to the president because of his ties to the Hispanic community in Florida.”
Martinez compared his Senate campaign to his immigrant efforts in building his life in the United States. “I had to start from scratch,” he said. “I had to put together a game plan rather quickly.”
In the primary, Martinez’s accusations against his opponent, Bill McCollum, were described as so “hateful” that one newspaper in Florida rescinded its recommendation of Martinez.
“No matter what else Martinez may accomplish in public life, his reputation will be forever tainted by his campaign’s nasty and ludicrous slurs of McCollum in the final days of this race,” the St. Petersburg Times said in August.
Martinez said he learned to fight early on in life, specifically at age 15, when he boarded that flight bound for Miami.
Right away, he was sent to Camp Matecumbe, where hundreds of children plucked from Cuba lived in tight quarters. On the first night, “with a heavy heart,” he remembers getting some cookies and a glass of milk and sleeping on a cot in the dining room of the camp.
Martinez said he remembers feeling so lonely, so hopeless, that he longed to go back to Cuba. He hid his homesickness by playing baseball and basketball, sports he had excelled at back home in Sagua La Grande. Every day, he attended Mass, praying for strength and for a reunion with his family.
“It dawned on me then that it was just me and my God,” he said.
But the 15-year-old did not get his wish to reunite with his family, at least not right away.
He moved to another camp outside of Jacksonville and then to a foster home in Orlando. He lived with Walter and Eileen Young, a Catholic couple with two sons of their own.
“They gave me a lot of time and attention,” he said. “But I felt like an orphan.”
Slowly, he adapted to the American way of life. He learned to eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and learned English. As time went by, he made a name for himself as a first-baseman in baseball.
“I could hit the ball really hard,” he said “and people started to notice.”
Meanwhile, in Cuba, the situation worsened and his parents’ efforts to come to the United States were stalled by the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was then that Martinez _ who would eventually sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee _ gained a newfound appreciation for international affairs.
Four years later, after Martinez had lived in another foster home, his parents finally joined him in the United States. By then, he was adjusting to life here. He had learned English, graduated from high school and landed at a community college. After working as a shoe salesman, a bag boy at a supermarket and other part-time work, he saved $300, enough to buy a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air with no air conditioning, a car he shared with his parents.
Martinez had become the leader of his family. He helped his dad land a job at a local dairy farm. Neighbors brought used silverware, plates and even a rusty washer and dryer.
“My parents landed in my lap,” he said. “I had to take care of them.”
He graduated from Florida State University, went on to law school and worked as a trial lawyer and Orange County (Florida) mayor before coming to Washington.
“A lot of people have helped me throughout my life,” he said. “If I forget that, if I forget all my struggles as a teenager, I’ll lose touch with who I am.”