U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's announcement Friday that he is resigning more than a year before the end of his first term came as no real surprise. The rumor had been around for months, and Martinez has a habit of leaving jobs early instead of seeing them through (see Orange County chairman, U.S. housing secretary and Republican National Committee chairman). He is putting his self-interest above the interests of Floridians, who deserve to have two elected senators representing them with so many pivotal issues hanging in the balance. Now Gov. Charlie Crist has to appoint a seat-warmer who has a record of public service and is not out of the political mainstream.
Crist could take the Senate seat himself since he is already campaigning to win it next year. But even the governor who gutted growth management laws to make it easier to raise campaign cash is not that crass. He also has to resist the temptation to appoint others who would have obvious conflicts of interest.
For example, one often-mentioned possibility, Jim Smith, served Florida well as attorney general and secretary of state. Now Smith is a partner in Smith & Ballard, one of the top-grossing lobbying firms in Tallahassee. The firm has dozens of clients, including a variety of health care companies that have an interest in health care reform. Among its other clients are Florida Power & Light, which has an interest in the energy legislation passed by the House and awaiting Senate action. It's bad enough that lobbyists have so much influence in Tallahassee and Washington without having one occupy one of Florida's U.S. Senate seats.
Crist also should resist appointing someone significantly more conservative than Martinez. That will not be easy given the governor's own difficulties at placating that wing of the state Republican Party. Crist's opponent in next year's Senate primary, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, already is applying the pressure and demanding a demagogue. Martinez occasionally could not resist playing that role, such as when he championed federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo feeding tube controversy.
But more often, Martinez was willing to buck his own party for the good of the state. He joined nine Republicans earlier this year in voting with Democrats for an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. He worked with his Florida colleague, Democrat Bill Nelson, to craft a compromise to protect the state's coastline from oil drilling. He worked with the Bush administration on immigration reform only to see conservative Republicans kill the effort. And the former Cuban refugee just joined Democrats and a handful of other Republicans in voting to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
It's no wonder Martinez is frustrated and ready to leave Washington. He just should have finished what he started.