Sen. George LeMieux works to build his own political brand

WASHINGTON — The phone rang past 10 on a Saturday night. U.S. Sen. George LeMieux had a scoop: Florida was getting a nuclear aircraft carrier. "This is huge news," he told a reporter.

LeMieux was not at his office in Washington but had made a special trip to Jacksonville, home to Naval Station Mayport. Before the telephone call, he dropped by a local TV studio to go on camera and break the news.

LeMieux's savvy public relations play — jumping on a report to be officially released the following Monday — let him grab the attention well ahead of other Florida politicians.

Though only a temporary lawmaker filling the final 16 months of retired Sen. Mel Martinez's term, LeMieux has been relentless in trying to generate notice, whether through news releases or Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or extensive travel.

The 40-year-old Republican says he is working hard to represent Florida and communicating in ways that reflect a changing society. But there is a clear endgame to his ubiquitous message. The part-time public official wants a full-time gig.

Until recently, LeMieux was someone who was defined by his lack of public persona, the behind-the-scenes conductor of Gov. Charlie Crist's political machine. Since Crist appointed him in September, LeMieux has been rapidly working to transform himself into a viable brand of his own.

For now, that ambition points in a provocative direction: The seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, up for re-election in 2012.

Nelson was caught off guard the night LeMieux went on the aircraft offensive. LeMieux had little, if any, role in the yearslong bipartisan struggle to get the Navy to reassign a ship to Mayport, and his move came across as opportunistic and caused resentment.

The timing was coincidental, said LeMieux, a member of the Armed Services Committee. He planned to be in Jacksonville to get a look at the naval operation. Upon hearing the news, he said he called Nelson and U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, to let them know.

The men planned their own news conference for Monday, agreeing to wait for the official release of the report, but in the end it was LeMieux with a prominent spot on the local news.

"It is important that the two senators get along," Nelson said, refusing to engage in a discussion of his potential rival. "That's the way I'm going to approach any question about this. I have a good relationship with him."

During a meeting with the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, however, Nelson said it can be hard to have a relationship when you "constantly have to look over your shoulder."

• • •

Interim senators typically fit one of two profiles: a graying figure rewarded with a capstone, such as Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who was picked to serve out Vice President Joe Biden's term. Or a person with obvious intent to seek the full seat, like Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who took over when Hillary Rodham Clinton became secretary of state.

LeMieux was picked to fill the seat by the man running for it — Crist. Discarding veterans such as U.S. Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Pinellas County and Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami, Crist angered many Republicans. The man who would represent a state of 18 million was known only to insiders. It was widely seen as cronyism, LeMieux nothing more than a seat warmer.

"Whatever aspersions may have been cast initially have really gone away because of the job he's doing," said former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas who has been impressed by LeMieux's work ethic. "He's on the job 24-7."

LeMieux has shown a command of the issues. He has offered amendments on health care, and a proposal to cut government spending earned kudos from the conservative publication Weekly Standard.

But six months in, it's also clear the selection of LeMieux was designed to be mutually beneficial, to further Crist's political career and kick start LeMieux's.

The union was a long time coming. In a little-known piece of Florida political history, LeMieux angled to become Crist's running mate in 2006 even as he served on the committee that eventually selected then-state Rep. Jeff Kottkamp. LeMieux declined to discuss the process, calling it confidential, but said others pushed for him.

As a senator, LeMieux has ingratiated himself with the Republican leadership and forcefully espoused the party line.

He started a political action committee that quickly collected $60,000 from lobbyists and corporate interests, including drugmakers and CSX railroad. In turn, LeMieux donated money to Crist, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who faces his toughest re-election in a long time, and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a potential presidential contender in 2012.

"It tells you all you need to know," said Quinn T. McCord, managing editor of the Hotline, a nonpartisan tipsheet in Washington. "He's a young guy and he's already gotten a taste of what it's like to serve. It wouldn't be surprising if he wants a return trip."

• • •

LeMieux's promotional campaign is relentless. On any given day, he sends out a flurry of news releases and Twitters, sounding off on the budget, national security, health care or legislation he is backing or bashing.

All senators do this, of course. But LeMieux is aggressive when compared to other stand-ins. He seems to be literally taking his own pledge to squeeze a six-year term into 16 months, and to gain as much attention as possible.

If LeMieux is scheduled to say something on the Senate floor, reporters get an e-mail and a phone call. And that is followed up by a video clip placed on YouTube. And the video is promoted through Twitter. Some of LeMieux's videos are staged to make it appear he is taking questions from reporters, when in reality he is not. The soundbites are shopped to Florida TV stations.

"People are not just reading the newspaper anymore and they're not just watching television. They are communicating through all these new media ways," LeMieux said. "So it's my job to get what I'm doing to them and receive from them input about what I should be doing."

Not that he has completely overlooked traditional media. LeMieux has aggressively sought national TV appearances and courted stations in Florida. Last week, he appeared on the news in Miami, Orlando and Fort Myers.

LeMieux has kept a busy travel schedule. He has visited Miami, West Palm Beach, Tallahassee, Fort Lauderdale, Panama City, Pensacola, Tampa, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples, Orlando, Fort Walton Beach and Lynn Haven. He's tried to be in two places at once. On the day he was in Jacksonville grabbing the spotlight from Nelson, LeMieux's office held a town hall meeting in Fort Myers on tainted drywall. LeMieux provided a video greeting but some in the crowd were angered he did not attend in person.

Beyond Florida, LeMieux has gone to Afghanistan, Panama, Colombia and Honduras and visited Haiti after the earthquake. News release: "LeMieux: U.S. Will Not Waiver in Commitment to Haiti." Photos were attached to help cultivate the image of a man in charge.

• • •

What does it all amount to? The odds would be against LeMieux as a Senate candidate. Nelson, a veteran politician, has had years to build name recognition. And if a struggling Crist cannot win this year, he could push LeMieux aside in 2012.

But LeMieux has taken aggressive steps to emerge from the shadows. "Good policy always makes good politics," he said, conceding the efforts could serve two goals. "But that's the way I think about it. I don't think about the politics first."

On Wednesday afternoon, LeMieux strode into the Senate chamber looking completely comfortable, like he wants to belong. He has the back-patting bonhomie down, the casual banter.

After voting, the accidental senator drifted into a conversation with Thune, leaning in, hands clasped behind his back. He spotted McCain and went over to talk to him. Then LeMieux sat down at his desk in the last row and took in the debate.

Suddenly, the room cracked up at a one-liner from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. LeMieux laughed, too, slapping his hand on the desk.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at learyspt.

Sen. George LeMieux works to build his own political brand 03/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 4:05pm]

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