Mel Martinez is neither naive nor a young Boy Ranger, but then Jimmy Stewart never could have played this role anyway. Mr. Martinez goes to Washington as an eager junior U.S. senator, but he also is the chamber's first Cuban-American. He is an exile, having fled Cuba at age 15, and a potent symbol for those who come to this nation seeking opportunity.
The ceremony surrounding Martinez's first day as a senator reflected that flavor, as he answered questions alternately in English and Spanish. Two busloads of exiles from his Cuban hometown of Sagua La Grande drove from Miami to Washington to see him sworn in. He's been assigned to the Foreign Relations Committee, among others, and already is seeking to use his expertise in Latin American affairs.
What Martinez told supporters is equally important to his success. He spoke fondly of retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and the success that can be achieved by working across partisan lines. He mentioned legal reforms as an example. Martinez is a trial lawyer and a Republican who believes that lawsuits are hurting the delivery of medical care, so he is well-positioned to help bring the two sides together. "You get things done by reaching for the middle," he said.
That approach has been warmly received by Floridians in the past. Martinez acknowledged that his campaign represented what he called the politics of "extreme destruction." But he asked to be judged by his life's work, and his longtime friend and political activist Ken Connor described the campaign as "a parenthesis that was an exception to what has been Mel Martinez's historical nature."
Martinez's commitment to reach for the middle soon will be tested by issues such as Social Security privatization and continued deficit spending, but his life experience and government background should help him. The Martinez who sought to bring people together and find workable solutions as Orange County chairman is indeed the Martinez who could inspire in the Senate.