Senate, Mel Martinez has emerged as an influential political player, thanks in part to his close relationship to President George W. Bush. Despite his "rookie" ranking – he's 98th in Senate seniority – he has landed seats on key panels, including the Foreign Relations Committee.
"It is not frequent that a new senator takes part in the Foreign Relations Committee, and even less common that just one hour after having been sworn-in, he is sitting down with the next secretary of state [Condoleezza Rice]," says Frank Calzón, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. "This is a clear sign of the power that he may have later, especially in any policy related to Latin America."
As the first Cuban American elected to the Senate and one of the first Hispanics in the Senate in more than two decades, Mr. Martínez takes a special interest in immigration, drug trafficking, and international trade. Already he has publicly urged colleagues to pass the Foreign Relations Authorization Act that includes more than $37 million to support new aerial transmission capabilities, as well as Radio and TV Marti, in Cuba.
"I will work to get more attention to Latin America, where there are economic problems and some unstable democracies," he tells Hispanic Business in an exclusive interview. He notes particular interest in Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez is seen by some as a threat to U.S. interests in the region; Colombia, where the United States actively helps fight terrorism and drug trafficking; and Cuba, where he envisions a transition to democracy.
Mr. Martínez also has an interest in the U.S. Hispanic community, going so far as to deliver his first speeches to Congress in both English and Spanish. Supporters hope that Mr. Martínez could become the "Hispanic voice" that the Senate has lacked for decades. For the Republican Party, he represents an opportunity to tap into the booming Hispanic electorate.
"He understands well that, even though we are the largest and most powerful minority in this country, we endure many challenges," says Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the first Cuban-American woman in Congress and one of Mr. Martínez's supporters during the senatorial campaign. "Hispanics have won with Martínez's arrival to the Senate. As HUD secretary he has had experience working for low-income families, and as a senator he will work to provide them better access to education and more employment opportunities. Work and education will be priorities on his agenda."
On immigration, Mr. Martínez says he does not support an amnesty program for illegal immigrants but spoke carefully about his overall position. "If we don't go to extremes, we may see some results during this Congress. It's why I believe President Bush's plan to legalize immigrant workers is going to be successful," he says. "On the other hand, there are countries, such as Mexico, which have unrealistic proposals. I don't think we should leave our borders completely open; there are too many threats."
Jose Lagos, director of Unidad Hondureña in Miami, says he remembers a meeting in which Mr. Martínez promised that, if elected, he would become the Hispanic voice in the Senate. "And I trust him," Mr. Lagos says. "As a Cuban, he knows firsthand the kinds of problems immigrants have to go through."
In an effort to blunt the opposition's criticism that his loyalty favors the White House rather than voters in Florida, Mr. Martínez emphasized during his Senate campaign that he does not agree with the Bush administration on every issue. On tort reform, for example, Mr. Bush favors a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering damages, while Mr. Martínez prefers a $500,000 limit. On all major issues, however, the Florida senator follows the party line. An editorial in the Miami Herald stated: "It's impossible to find an issue where [Mr.] Martínez disagrees with [Mr.] Bush."
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