Republican George LeMieux became the 34th senator in Florida history Thursday, an improbable rookie in Washington who at times seemed as wide-eyed as a tourist as he was welcomed into the Senate's majesty and pomp.
The youngest member of the Senate was sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden before a hometown crowd of more than 150 people, and immediately sought to keep a vow to "be my own man" by voicing strong reservations about opening the Florida coastline to offshore drilling.
Pointing to his three sons, identically dressed in khakis, navy blazers and red ties, the 40-year-old LeMieux said, "I'm worried about their future in this country if we continue to pile up all this debt without having a way to pay for it."
But the assertive flourishes did not quell criticism in Florida that the selection of LeMieux has created. By picking his former chief of staff, Gov. Charlie Crist bypassed more experienced candidates for the 16 months left in the term of Mel Martinez, who resigned last month.
"Now is not the time to play politics with an appointment such as this," said Tom Slade, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "I don't care how smart George LeMieux is, he doesn't have a chance to get up to speed on these complex issues."
The selection comes as Florida's clout in Washington is already on the decline. The delegation has few heavyweights to begin with and yet represents the fourth-largest state. Many argued Crist should have picked a former or current member of Congress.
Former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, who was on Crist's shortlist, said LeMieux must learn the nuances of dozens of issues quickly, and added that because the lawmaker is not known to most Floridians, he's going to have to spend as much time as possible touring the state when the Senate is out of session.
"It's sort of a nightmare scenario," Shaw said.
The governor remained in Florida on Thursday, a move that avoided further controversy and kept, for a day, the spotlight off his own Senate bid for 2010.
"I certainly wish Sen. LeMieux all the best," Crist said. "I'm sure he'll do great for the people of Florida."
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Escorted onto the floor of the venerable chamber by Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and former Republican Sen. Connie Mack, whom LeMieux worked for while attending Georgetown Law School, the new senator rested his palm on a family Bible as Biden delivered the oath at 2:55 p.m. When it was over, a loud cheer filled the room.
One of the first to welcome LeMieux was Sen. Roland Burris, the Illinois Democrat who succeeded Barack Obama earlier this year. "Thanks for helping me with my seniority," Burris joked.
A second ceremonial swearing-in was held in the Old Senate Chamber. There, Biden whispered to LeMieux that he had an advantage by being an appointed, short-term member of the Senate.
"You can act and vote exactly how you want to," he said. The vice president offered some advice: "Your word is your currency here."
He added, "Be straight with people. Not everybody is. ... For all the cynicism about this place, this is history. It matters."
LeMieux seemed to grasp that fully, in awe of the opportunity handed to him but determined to show he will not be a stop-gap for Crist, the wide favorite in the upcoming election.
"There's always going to be skeptics and there's always going to be folks that are critical and that's our American democracy," LeMieux said. "We'll see how things go over the next 16 months and hopefully they'll be less critical when I leave."
The new job pays $174,000 yearly and allows LeMieux access to Congress' health care and many perks, like use of a member-only gym. But he will not get pension benefits, which require five years of service.
Before a small gaggle of reporters, LeMieux addressed three issues of importance to Florida.
Oil drilling: He was concerned for environmental and other reasons about the federal proposal that would undercut a 2006 law that keeps oil rigs 230 miles off Tampa Bay and 125 miles off the Florida Panhandle. He did not outright oppose the plan, which could put Panhandle rigs within 45 miles, but suggested he would try to hold it up procedurally. (Though he might have to get in line behind Nelson for that.) Any plan, he said, should generate income for the state.
Health care: LeMieux praised President Obama's call for insurance exchanges but said the overall cost, about $900 billion over a decade, was troubling and avoided answering a question about a government-run insurance plan, which is abhorred by Republicans.
Immigration: "First and foremost we have to secure the borders," he said. "Then we're going to have to figure out what we do with the 12 million or so folks that are in this country illegally." He said he would have to study the issue more before commenting on the failed proposal Martinez worked on.
The junior senator was already warding off speculation that he'll mount a run against Nelson or seek another high-profile office. "I'm not focused on running for any political position in 2010 or 2012," he demurred. "I'm not worried about the next job, I'm focused on this job."
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As Crist's chief of staff, LeMieux provided the key advice and policy options to a governor. As a rookie senator, he will be very dependent on his staff to guide him through a morass of policy issues. A chief of staff has not been hired.
In Tallahassee, LeMieux grew accustomed to controlling the levers of power. It's a different story in Washington, where the Republicans are a distinct minority in the Senate.
But that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of more than 150 people from Tallahassee and LeMieux's home county of Broward who traveled to watch the swearing-in of the first U.S. senator from the county.
The cheering section included family, friends, law partners, Republican activists and a few people who have directly benefited from LeMieux's political clout in Florida.
"He made my career," said Jay Hurley of Fort Lauderdale, a college fraternity brother of Crist's whom the governor appointed to a county court judgeship in Broward last year. "He (LeMieux) gave the blessing to the governor. I'm here to support him."
LeMieux's law partner, Robert Hackleman, said: "It's a great thing for all of us."
On Thursday afternoon, Sen. LeMieux cast his first vote - a no vote - in opposition to President Obama's appointment of Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein to a job in the Office of Management and Budget.
Sunstein was confirmed anyway, on a 57-40 vote. The roll call vote sheets circulated in the Senate press gallery still listed Mel Martinez's name, which was scratched out and replaced, in pencil, by "LeMieux."
Times staff writer Rick Danielson contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Personal: Born May 21, 1969, in Fort Lauderdale; wife, Meike, and sons, Max, 6, Taylor, 4, and Chase, 2.
Experience: former chair of Gunster Yoakley & Stewart law firm; former chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist; former deputy attorney general.
Web page: Lemieux.senate.gov; D.C. office number: (202) 224-3041; E-mail: email@example.com