WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's early retirement will leave the nation's fourth-largest state with a temp in a chamber that rewards seniority with power.
Martinez had planned to step down at the end of his term next year but said last week he'll leave office as soon as Gov. Charlie Crist appoints a replacement. Since Crist is running for the seat himself, he's expected to choose a stand-in entrusted to keep the seat warm until the November 2010 election.
In the meantime, key votes on health care reform, climate change and possibly immigration reform will be bearing down on Congress.
"At a time when there are going to be very significant decisions to be made, the junior senator from Florida will called on to participate in some close and controversial votes," said former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who represented Florida in Washington for nearly two decades. "The person will be treated respectfully and have one vote like everyone else, but in terms of building relationships, building knowledge, and the ability to be effective, they will be limited. Everyone knows they are leaving the first Tuesday of January in 2011."
Another former senator from Florida, Republican Connie Mack, said last week that he was "extremely disappointed'' that Martinez was stepping down early.
"It would have been helpful to have had his voice and his experience on the issues that we're dealing with," Mack said.
Many of the Senate's perks — plum committee assignments, influential leadership posts — are based on years of service. Martinez was a member of the minority party serving his first term, but he had built relationships in Washington as chairman of the Republican National Committee and as a member of former President Bush's Cabinet.
"Everything in the Senate is based on seniority. Mel had built up that seniority and now it's gone, so the next senator will come in at the bottom," said Dan Webster, a former Republican state Senate leader favored by some social conservatives to replace Martinez. "It's a loss for the state."
Voting rights advocates say the resignation — and the U.S. Constitution which calls for gubernatorial appointments to fill such vacancies — highlight the need for special elections to fill Senate seats in such cases. One of the largest states in the nation will be co-represented by a senator who didn't win a single vote. By comparison, every vacancy in the House — a body traditionally considered closer to the voters — is filled by a special election.
"Even under the most benign of circumstances, a gubernatorial appointment robs the people of that state of the chance to have a say in who that person is," said Paul Fidalgo of FairVote, a group that supports a proposed constitutional amendment requiring elections for Senate vacancies. "They don't come in with a mandate from voters. The political capital that comes from an election is absent."
Gubernatorial appointments can also damage the public trust. In one extreme case, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and ousted from office and faces federal charges of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. In New York, Gov. David Paterson was widely criticized for bungling the search to replace Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while Vice President Joe Biden's successor in Delaware, Ted Kaufman, has been mocked as a "placeholder senator'' to keep the seat available for Biden's son, Beau, who is serving in Iraq.
Florida hasn't had an appointed senator since 1946, when Democrat Spessard L. Holland stepped in after the death of Sen. Charles Andrews. Martinez's early departure to spend more time with his family means Florida voters will likely see a Senate seat change hands three times in 18 months.
Since he took office in January 2005, Martinez and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson have teamed up on a number of issues, including pushing for more money for hurricane research and fending off attempts to open the state's coastline to oil and gas production. Crist has warmed to offshore oil drilling, and if he chooses a like-minded appointment, Florida will lose its united, bipartisan front.
"Florida senators have to work together to get things done for the state," said Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley. "Graham and Mack were a good team, and Bill and Mel were a good team. We're hoping that will continue."
In one of their last joint efforts, the two senators plan to interview candidates for eight coveted federal posts for Florida and make recommendations to the White House before the Senate reconvenes Sept. 8, Gulley said.
Any bills that Martinez has introduced will lose their chief proponent, but Nelson is likely to take up three hurricane-related bills his colleague sponsored, along with three of his own hurricane bills, Gulley said.
More divisive issues, though, such as health care reform and climate change, could thrust Florida's interim senator to center stage. The Democratic party's slender majority and illnesses among its members will continue to force leadership to turn to moderate Republicans to help carry out its agenda.
"The Democrats have 60 votes, but only on the edge of a knife," said Florida International University professor Nicol Rae, a former aide to Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. "Even if you're a senator low on the seniority pole, you could end up being influential. One vote in the Senate could be an important vote."
At a cost to his own popularity, Martinez defied the party's base to champion legislation that would have allowed illegal workers to earn citizenship.
Advocates say the loss of a key Republican ally will intensify the challenge of overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
"The debate is going to lose someone who had a lot to contribute," said state. Rep. Juan Zapata of Miami, a National Association of Latino Elected Officials board member.
''We're losing someone who has a good grasp of the diversity of the state and represents it."
The first Cuban-American senator, Martinez encouraged his party to expand its outreach to the fast-growing Hispanic community. He recently warned his fellow Republicans that the "very divisive rhetoric of the immigration debate set a very bad tone for our brand'' and cautioned that "there were voices within our party, frankly, which if they continue with that kind of rhetoric, anti-Hispanic rhetoric … we're going to be relegated to minority status."
Martinez often brought up his own experience of arriving from Cuba as a teenager to encourage critics to view immigration as a route to the American dream.
"He was somebody who approached the immigration issue as a compassionate conservative, which is something I think our party needs," Zapata said. "The party is losing someone who could explain to the rest of us why it makes sense, and I think the fate of the Republican party is partly tied to how we deal with this issue."
Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.