Martinez, Who Donated to Democrats, May Seek Senate for GOP

Is the White House encouraging a candidate who has a history of making substantial contributions to Democratic office-holders to jump into a crowded Republican primary for Florida’s open Senate seat?

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez announced his resignation from the Cabinet last week amid speculation he would announce a campaign for the U.S. Senate from Florida. Cuban-born Martinez, who came to the United States at 15, has an impressive rags-to-riches story and, if elected, would be the first Cuban-American senator.

Martinez was a successful personal injury lawyer and past president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. It is not so surprising, then, that, according to Federal Election Commission reports, Martinez contributed $1,000 to Sen. Bob Graham (D.-Fla.) in 1985; $1,000 to Sen. Fritz Hollings (D.-S.C.) in 1990; and $250 to Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.) in 1989. That year he also contributed $500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to aid its efforts to maintain a Democratic Senate majority.

Martinez also gave $1,500 to Democratic Florida State Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter in 1988.

When asked last week if reports that the White House had urged Martinez to get into a crowded Republican primary field were true, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan dodged the question. He was “not aware of any statement by Secretary Martinez other than his resignation,” said McClellan, and the President “appreciated the outstanding job he had done.” He declined to discuss whether the President or White House political director Karl Rove would support Martinez over the other Republicans already running. “Maybe we’ll discuss it later,” he said.

Martinez would join a field already packed with four conservatives: former Rep. Bill McCollum, a Clinton impeachment manager who was the unsuccessful GOP Senate nominee in 2000; State Sen. Dan Webster (the former speaker of the Florida House); present House Speaker Johnny Byrd; and former Judicial Watch head Larry Klayman. Former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who has moved to Florida, has said he also may run.

Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, who gained fame as Florida’s secretary of state during the 2000 presidential recount, is also believed to be considering the race. Harris spokesman David Host said the congresswoman “enjoyed working with Secretary Martinez, but his potential candidacy won’t impact on her eventual decision, which will be based on what is best for Florida, and will be made after she consults her family, and friends.”

Regarding a report in the Miami Herald that said Martinez had been recruited by the White House because “White House strategists fear her presence on the ballot would reignite Democratic furor over the 2000 election in the country’s biggest swing state,” Host said he did not know of anyone from the administration who has tried to discourage Harris from running.

With his stands on most national issues unknown, reviews of Martinez among Florida conservatives are mixed. Fans note he once was a law partner of Ken Connor, former head of the Family Research Council, and that he was Connor’s lieutenant governor running mate in 1994, when Connor sought the Republican nomination for governor. But other Florida conservatives point out that Martinez ran to the left of a strong conservative Republican in order to win the non-partisan race for Orange County (Fla.) chairman (chief executive officer) in 1998.