MIKE SCHNEIDER | Associated Press
Mel Martinez frames his life as a classic immigrant success story - a teenage refugee from Cuba who eventually reaches the height of political power.
Four years ago, he became the first Cuban-American to serve in a presidential cabinet. On Wednesday, he defeated Democrat Betty Castor to win the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bob Graham. He is the first Cuban-American ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
Martinez arrived in Florida from Cuba four decades ago, leaving his family behind on the communist island. He was placed with a foster family in Orlando, studied hard to learn English and worked odd jobs that helped him buy his father a used car when his parents arrived in the United States four years later.
Martinez, 58, put himself through college and earned a law degree at Florida State University. He then made a name for himself on the local political scene - becoming chairman of Orange County government - before President Bush named him housing secretary in 2000.
“It’s a mix of experiences that I think keeps me in touch with the common man. I’m not someone who’s forgotten where he comes from,” Martinez said. “My understanding of freedom and oppression, my understanding of a government that ran amok and tried to do everything and did nothing well, my understanding of having to make your way in life, having to pay your way through college, living alone, living in a foster home.”
Martinez was groomed in national politics during the past three years by Bush and his Republican advisers. Former Democratic supporters from Martinez’s days in Orlando politics said they think Washington’s influence made Martinez more partisan and conservative - a suggestion he denies.
He ran a sometimes contentious campaign. Martinez accused Castor, a former state education commissioner, of not doing enough to crack down on a professor accused of supporting terrorism when she was president of the University of South Florida in the 1990s. Castor denied the accusations.
Similar hardball tactics were used in the GOP primary race. His campaign released mailings and a short-lived ad that described former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, an undisputed conservative, as a darling of the “radical homosexual lobby” for supporting hate-crime legislation that covered gays among other groups.
The primary left McCollum fuming. Martinez blamed the tactics on staff members and he said he made staff changes as a result.
By contrast, Martinez earned a “Mr. Nice Guy” reputation as a pragmatist supported by both Democrats and Republicans when he was chairman of Orange County government between 1998 and 2000. Before winning elective office, Martinez had worked as a lawyer in a politically connected law firm.
As HUD secretary, Martinez won praise from consumer groups for trying to make changes to simplify the mortgage settlement process during home purchases; HUD shelved the proposal after Martinez left. He also launched an initiative to reduce homelessness.
His critics said he lacked a comprehensive vision for the agency, favored helping moderate-income people become homeowners over building new public housing for the poor and that he failed to maintain and revitalize the public housing stock.
Martinez, who has a friendship with President Bush, supports the commander in chief on almost every issue with one exception. Martinez, a former trial lawyer, supports higher caps on lawyer’s fees in medical malpractice cases than that pushed by Republicans.
He stepped down from his cabinet post at the urging of the White House and Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who hoped his addition to the ballot would shore up the Cuban vote for the president and pre-empt U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., from entering the race.