WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Mel Martinez announced his resignation Friday, ending a short and sometimes tumultuous career in national politics while fueling wild speculation over whom Gov. Charlie Crist will pick as an interim replacement.
Martinez, who made history in 2004 by becoming the first Cuban-American senator, insisted he was leaving on his own accord and in good health.
Instead, the 62-year-old offered a simpler explanation: He's homesick.
"My priorities have always been my faith, my family and my country, and at this stage in my life and after nearly 12 years of public service in Florida and Washington, it's time I return to Florida and my family," he said during a news conference in his hometown of Orlando.
The long-rumored — and repeatedly denied by Martinez — move to leave office early means that Florida's junior senator for the next 16 months will likely be a placeholder with little clout or Washington experience.
Martinez said he would return to the private sector but does not yet have a job. He has already asked not to be considered for the vacant president's job at Florida State University, where he earned undergraduate and law degrees.
Martinez had announced late last year that he would not seek a second term, though he had insisted he would see his term through. With his approval ratings in the basement, Martinez was viewed as perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent in the country.
People close to him have long said he had grown disenchanted with Washington and longed to be back home with his wife, Kitty, and their three children, one of whom is in high school. "Mel Martinez is not one who longs to do one more fundraiser and three more TV interviews," said Kirk Fordham, finance director for the 2004 campaign. "He just doesn't find that life fulfilling."
But the abrupt resignation surprised many, even as rumors of a premature departure pervaded Washington and Tallahassee for months. And it ignited talk over whom Crist would pick as Martinez's replacement — a decision made even more intriguing because the governor is the front-runner candidate for the Senate election in 2010.
Crist has until September to pick a substitute. The Senate just began a monthlong recess.
A formidable roster of possible replacements quickly surfaced: former Sen. Connie Mack, who declined; former Gov. Bob Martinez; former Attorney General and Secretary of State Jim Smith; former Rep. Clay Shaw; former Rep. Mike Bilirakis; former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings; and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
Martinez was narrowly elected to the Senate in 2004 with the strong backing of President George W. Bush. His campaign was wrapped in an immigrant's pride, Martinez having arrived in the United States from communist Cuba at age 15.
But the GOP primary was an ugly one. Martinez drew heat for accusing opponent Bill McCollum of appealing to "homosexual extremists" because McCollum supported a hate crimes bill. Martinez, who eked out a win over Democrat Betty Castor in the general election, later agreed to pay $99,000 in fines for campaign finance violations.
Controversy followed in 2005 amid the right-to-life case involving Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Pinellas County woman who ultimately was removed from a feeding tube. Martinez, who sought federal review of the case, accidentally handed a Democratic senator a memo detailing why the Schiavo bill was good for Republicans.
Later, support within his own party began to fade. Martinez's advocacy for immigration reform in 2006 and 2007 brought scorn from conservatives who abhorred the idea of amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.
He took on a brief role as head of the Republican National Committee but later resigned to focus more on lawmaking.
The controversies, however, did not engulf his career.
Martinez earned a reputation as someone willing to work across the aisle, most notably on immigration, but also on housing issues and in opposing offshore drilling. He also passionately pursued policy on Cuba.
"We may not have agreed on most things, but on a range of issues, Sen. Martinez put the interests of Florida ahead of the interests of his party," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.
One of Martinez's last votes came Thursday, when he bucked his party and supported President Barack Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
In his last speech on the Senate floor, Martinez heralded the historic nature of the first Hispanic justice and cast aside criticism that Sotomayor was an activist judge who lets personal bias color her decisions.
"This assertion is not supported by the facts," Martinez said.
Fordham said the vote summed up Martinez's ability to see both sides.
"In the end, he demonstrated he was someone more interested in bipartisan solutions. If he served another term or two, he could have cemented that reputation."
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.