Advertisement
  1. Archive

MARTINEZ'S SENATE CAREER ENDS WITH WARNING AGAINST OIL DRILLING

His replacement, George LeMieux, looks on.

He is the former senator now.

Mel Martinez concluded an abbreviated U.S. Senate term Wednesday with a farewell speech that thanked Floridians for "a fulfilling chapter in my own version of the American dream" but expressed regret that the promise to other immigrants remains unkept.

And he warned the Florida Legislature against pursuing plans to allow oil drilling between the shore and 10 miles off the gulf coast, a once unthinkable prospect that has gained currency among his fellow Republicans.

"To do it as close as they are talking about would really be a mistake," Martinez told reporters after his speech, which alluded to his work on a federal law giving a much bigger buffer between drilling and the coast.

But if Martinez leaves a lasting impression in Washington it will be over immigration reform, an issue that represented perhaps his biggest accomplishment but one that also contributed greatly to his undoing.

Martinez summoned President Ronald Reagan's farewell address about opening the nation's doors to anyone with the "will and the heart" to get here, and added, "I believe those words to be as true today as the day he said them, and I do hope that in the not-too-distant future this Congress will address itself to the very important issue."

But Martinez did not dwell on the divisive subject, instead offering an upbeat assessment of his time in public office, which began years ago as mayor of Orange County and culminated in him becoming the first Cuban-American to serve in the U.S. Senate.

"Having lived through the onset of tyranny in one country and played a part in the proud democratic traditions of another," he said, "I leave here today with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity to give back to the nation that I love."

He said he was proud of an array of issues, but one of the most rewarding aspects of the job had been to help Floridians deal with everyday issues. During his five years in office, he said, the office dealt with the concerns of more than 36,000 families.

Watching from the gallery was Martinez's replacement, George LeMieux, the man Gov. Charlie Crist picked as interim until Crist himself seeks to occupy the seat in 16 months. LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff, is to be sworn in at 2:45 p.m. today.

Martinez, 62, said long ago that he would not seek a second term, but surprised many by announcing last month that he would step down early, citing a desire to be closer to family in Florida.

The move drew scorn from some circles, and Martinez may never shake the quitter label. But Wednesday, Senate colleagues said his decision to put family above all else was noble.

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said he tried for three months to talk Martinez out of retiring. "I didn't want him to resign, because it's been good for Florida the way the two of us have worked together professionally," said Nelson, who notably worked with Martinez to protect the state's coastlines from oil drilling.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., predicted that an immigration reform bill would pass one day and that it would be a tribute to Martinez and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat with whom Martinez teamed up in 2007 for bipartisan legislation that ultimately died. It would have offered legal status to 12 million illegal immigrants while improving border security.

Accused of being soft on illegal immigrants, Martinez was pilloried by conservatives and his approval ratings slipped.

Martinez was recruited by President George W. Bush and Karl Rove as a new face of the GOP, and he had a rich life story to match: Born in Cuba, he escaped the communist regime at age 15, learned English and went on to earn an undergraduate and law degree from Florida State University.

The departure represents a step backward of sorts for the GOP. Republicans do not have a Hispanic member of the Senate at a time when the party has faced declining voter support from the growing minority.

And Martinez took himself out of the game just as immigration may resurface. He said Wednesday that he doubts it will be dealt with soon due to other weighty issues, such as health care reform.

"I don't think they can do something this divisive and this difficult in the environment of an impending election," he told reporters after his speech.

Standing alone outside the Senate floor, Martinez seemed at ease, happy. He said his decision to resign came with a "heavy heart," but "it's the right thing for me and my family."

But the Florida Legislature's move to open up drilling 10 miles off the coast had him concerned.

"Look at what we did," he said of the 2006 federal law that keeps oil rigs 230 miles off Tampa Bay and 125 miles off the Florida Panhandle.

"We did something that opened up a lot of drilling, but it did protect Florida's coast," Martinez said.

A lawyer, Martinez said he is weighing several job options. He pledged to continue to work to provide freedom to the people of Cuba.

Not long after, Martinez was back on the Senate floor, speaking in favor of a bill that seeks to promote the nation's - and Florida's - tourism economy by creating a nonprofit corporation funded by a $10 assessment on foreign visitors. It passed 79-19.

"This will be something I can sort of button up my Senate career with," Martinez said.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement