- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

Republican Sen. Mel Martinez announced Friday he will be resigning his seat in the coming weeks, saying he was stepping down more than a year before his first term expires in order spend more time at home in Florida.

Mr. Martinez, the first Cuban-American elected to the Senate, had announced in December that he would not be running for re-election in 2010 and has already endorsed Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in the race to succeed him. But his decision to step down as soon as a successor can be named took many by surprise and introduced a new dynamic into the race.

In a brief news conference in Orlando, Mr. Martinez told reporters he was resigning to spend more time in Florida with his family and because of a desire to “get on with the rest of my life” in the private sector. He denied he had been pressured to quit or that he faced health problems.

“Absolutely not, no. This is a free country. The people of Florida elected me. This is of my own free will,” the 62-year-old lawmaker said.

Mr. Crist, seen as the front-runner in the race, will be able to appoint a temporary replacement to fill the seat until next year’s election.

Immediately after Mr. Martinez’s announcement, the governor told reporters that he would not appoint himself to the post and that his office has already been flooded with recommendations for the job.

He promised within the next several weeks to select a replacement who is a person of “honor” and “integrity.”

Early speculation on possible interim successors included Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer; former Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., who lost his House seat in 2006; former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, now with a leading Tampa law firm; and construction executive Allan G. Bense, a former speaker of the Florida House.

Mr. Crist, who has been criticized by his party’s conservatives for backing President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, nevertheless leads in the polls and has a massive cash advantage. He has raised $4.3 million, according to recent campaign-finance reports.

His chief primary rival, conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, has just $340,000 in his campaign chest. The leading Democratic candidate, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, has raised $3 million, campaign-finance reports show.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, stressed that the resignation did not hurt the party’s prospects in Florida, as Republicans fight to cut into the hefty Democratic edge in the Senate.

“We are thankful to have a very strong Republican candidate in Gov. Charlie Crist, and we are confident that this seat will remain in the Republican column in 2010,” he said.

In his resignation announcement, Mr. Martinez said he was grateful for the opportunity Florida voters gave him to serve in the Senate and take on difficult issues, including pressing for help for families struggling economically and speaking out against the oppressive Communist regime in Cuba.

Mr. Martinez, who was born in Cuba and sent by his parents to Florida to escape Fidel Castro’s regime in the early 1960s, hinted that his work to secure “a better future for the people of Cuba” would be part of his plans.

“I will continue that lifelong passion in the next phase of my life,” he said.

His exact plans were unclear, though he said he would continue to be an active member of the state Republican Party.

Mr. Martinez has a pattern of stepping down early in his political career. Named the first Hispanic to head the Republican National Committee in 2006, he resigned as party chairman a year later saying he wanted to focus on his work in the Senate. He served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush, resigning in 2003 to prepare his successful bid for the Senate.

While conservative, Mr. Martinez did not uniformly vote with his party’s leadership. He voted to confirm fellow Hispanic Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, one of just nine Republicans to back Mr. Obama’s pick. He also clashed with some in his party over immigration policy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Martinez has been “an outstanding advocate and public servant for his state and nation at every level of government.”

He commended his colleague for putting “his own plans on hold to serve at the national level” and said he recognized that Mr. Martinez was “eager to return to his family and beloved Florida.”

The senator was also praised by America’s Voice, an activist group promoting immigration policy reform, including a citizenship process for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

The group called Mr. Martinez “a strong supporter of common-sense, practical and fair solutions” for immigration, as well as “a voice of reason within his party.”

“His voice and his perspective will be missed. We hope whoever replaces him will have the same reasoned approach to immigration reform,” the group said in a written statement.

In addition to Mr. Martinez, six Republican senators have announced they would not be running for re-election in 2010.

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