News Column

Frosh Con Fuego

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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 Hondureńa 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."

The home-loyalty issue came up again after the election when Mr. Martínez cast the tie-breaking vote to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups see Arctic drilling as the first step toward drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, a hot-button political issue in nearby Florida.
The Senate race also raised questions about Mr. Martínez's campaign tactics. During the primary stage, he labeled moderate Republican rival Bill McCollum as anti-family and pro-gay for his support of stem-cell research and a hate-crime bill. Mr. Martínez's "reputation will be forever tainted by his campaign's nasty and ludicrous slurs of McCollum in the final days of the race," the St. Petersburg Times wrote.

But he won. And since then, Mr. Martínez has moved quickly to solidify his position. His senior staff includes heavy hitters such as former White House associate political director Matthew Hunter as his Florida state director; John Little, former legislative director for Senator Jeff Sessions, as chief of staff; and Tripp Baird, former Heritage Foundation legislative affairs director, as legislative director.

On the economic front, Mr. Martínez says he will strive to make Miami the permanent secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, even though many analysts see the project as a dead issue. During his tenure as chairman of Orange County, he gained a reputation as a tax-cutter, a trend that supporters expect to continue in the Senate. "Hispanic entrepreneurs should be glad that Martínez is in Congress because he will strive to relieve them from unnecessary taxes," says Ms. Ros-Lehtinen.

Mr. Martínez found himself in the middle of a firestorm in early April, when it was revealed that his legal counsel was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo. The aide's resignation was accepted soon afterward, and Mr. Martínez, who was the GOP's Senate point man on the issue, said, "I just took it for granted that we wouldn't be that stupid. It was never my intention to in any way politicize this issue."

Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Martínez supports the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and opposes abortion as well as embryonic stem cell research. "I escaped an evil dictatorship where there was no value placed on human life, and I know firsthand that respect for the sanctity of life is a critical characteristic of a good nation," Mr. Martínez said during his campaign. He also favors the war in Iraq, agrees with the death penalty, and opposes government limits on the right to bear arms.

The memories of his Cuban heritage were vivid, Mr. Martínez says, when he took his seat on Capitol Hill. "It's been a long road from my native Sagua to the Senate floor."

Biographical Highlights

•Emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1962, at the age of 15, as part of the Catholic Church's program to relocate children from the communist island.
•Reunited with his parents in 1966 in Orlando, Florida, after living in foster homes and orphanages.
•Graduated from Bishop Moore High School
in Orlando.
•Earned bachelor's and law degrees from Florida State University in Tallahassee.
•Practiced as a personal injury attorney in Orlando with a law firm that included former Orlando mayor Bill Frederick.
•Debuted in politics in 1984 when he was appointed chairman of the Orlando Housing Authority.
•Ran for lieutenant governor in 1994.
•Served as Florida co-chairman of Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.
•Elected Orange County, Florida, chairman in 1998.
•Served as George W. Bush's Florida campaign
co-chairman and a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2000.
•Tapped to head Department of Housing and
Urban Development in 2001.
•Married more than 30 years to wife, Kitty, with three children and two grandchildren.

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