- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 29, 2009

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday selected his closest political confidant to serve out the term of retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez for 16 months, until the Republican governor himself hopes to take over the seat.

In the choice that quickly brought Democratic charges of cronyism, Mr. Crist ended a long and very public selection process by naming former chief of staff George LeMieux - a self-described “Charlie Crist Republican” - as the state’s next senator.

The Broward County lawyer and Republican Party official has formed a tight bond with his former boss, who once called Mr. LeMieux the “maestro” of his winning 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

“I know the kind of public servant he has been and will be,” Mr. Crist told reporters in Tallahassee Friday. “I know his soul and I know that he will serve the people of the state honorably and well.”

The 40-year-old Mr. Lemieux, who got his law degree from Georgetown, said working to reduce the national debt will be one of his top priorities in his abbreviated Senate term.

“I’ve learned working with this great governor that public servants have to be problem-solvers and I will seek to be a problem-solver in Washington D.C.,” he said.

The pick was not without political risk for the moderate Republican governor as he prepares his own Senate run. Democrats immediately accused Mr. Crist of choosing a political clone to hold the seat he covets, while the choice also does little to shore up the governor’s shaky relations with the more conservative wing of the Florida GOP.

Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the liberal organization Progress Florida, called the LeMieux pick “shocking.”

“Instead of an experienced statesman looking out for the best interests of Floridians, we get a partisan political operator who will vote based on one criterion and one criteria only - what will help his former boss win election in 2010,” he said.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman called the choice “a glaring example of political cronyism.”

Although popular in state polls, the governor is not a lock to win his own party’s nomination to run for the Senate seat. Conservatives in Florida and across the country were angered by Mr. Crist’s open support for President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, even sharing a stage with the Democratic president at a rally in February to push for passage of the package of spending programs and tax cuts.

Many on the right have rallied to the underdog campaign of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has refused to give up on a primary challenge to the governor for the Senate seat.

Mr. Rubio, in an interview on CNN Friday, called the LeMieux pick “disappointing,” saying the governor had a “wealth of consistent and principled conservative candidates to choose from.”

Mr. LeMieux “is a talented political operative and the governor’s best friend, but that doesn’t make him the right choice to represent Florida in the Senate,” Mr. Rubio said.

In an unusually public search, Mr. Crist interviewed nearly a dozen candidates for the Martinez seat, including former Republican congressman Clay Shaw and prominent conservative state Sen. Dan Webster. In addition to being considered for the job, Mr. LeMieux was said to be advising the governor on his choice.

Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns of Ocala said he was “concerned” the LeMieux appointment “appears to serve as a place holder for the governor, rather than service the people of Florida as their U.S. senator.”

The St. Petersburg Times, in an editorial, said Mr. Crist has chosen to pick an “alter ego to keep the seat warm for 16 months as he campaigns for it.”

“He might as well have appointed himself,” the paper said.

Still, even political opponents acknowledge that the low-key senator-designate, who has never held elective office, possesses one of the state’s keenest political minds.

He lost his only political race - for a state House seat in 1998 - but forged a bond with Mr. Crist during that race as the future governor was mounting his own unsuccessful challenge to Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Graham.

Having built a successful private legal practice in Fort Lauderdale, Mr. LeMieux was chairman of the Broward County Republican Party when Mr. Crist, then the state attorney general, asked him to be his chief of staff.

Mr. LeMieux won notice in Republican circles nationwide for organizing Mr. Crist’s winning 2006 gubernatorial campaign, before returning to private legal practice in 2008.

Democratic critics say Mr. LeMieux, the son of Fort Lauderdale homebuilder, and his law firm have profited handsomely from his ties to the governor, earning big fees for legal work for the state and representing gambling interests looking to expand in Florida.

Mr. Martinez, the first Cuban-American elected to the Senate, had not planned to run for a second term next year. But he took Republican officials in Washington and Florida by surprise earlier this month by announcing he would step down immediately.

He is expected make a final floor speech in the Senate early next month and then resign, after which Mr. LeMieux will be immediately sworn in.

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