- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) — Capital Comment — Daily news notes, political rumors, and important events that shape politics and public policy in Washington and the world from United Press International.

Florida frolics…

Democrat Bob Graham's decision to run for president in 2004 has, as expected, upset the apple cart of Florida politics. Graham is currently not seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate seat he has held since 1986 — which has the Republicans salivating over the prospect of picking up the seat.

Up to now, the GOP field has consisted of two candidates. One, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Orlando, is a former House impeachment manager. His poor performance as the party's U.S. Senate candidate in 2000 may have been an almost-fatal drag on the Bush-Cheney effort in the state. The other is U.S. Rep. Mark Foley of Lake Worth. Foley is viewed by many as more politically moderate than McCollum and, therefore, vulnerable in a two-man primary where the voters lean to the right.

For months rumors have circulated that other candidates were being pushed to make the race. With Graham out, those efforts may be intensifying. News comes Tuesday that the White House may be trying to convince U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez to enter the race.

Martinez, who many thought was Jeb Bush's favorite to succeed him as governor in 2006, has frequently been mentioned as an ideal candidate for U.S. Senate in 2004. A Cuban refugee who as a teen came to the United States in 1962 speaking almost no English, Martinez embarked on a career of public service, eventually being elected chairman of the Orange County, Fla., board of commissioners, a critical swing area in central Florida.

Republicans who have been running Martinez's name up the flagpole believe he would help the GOP by energizing a larger-than-normal bloc of Cuban voters in the Miami-area while also running well among the non-Cuban Hispanic community in central Florida where he is already well known. In addition, he would likely be embraced by white conservatives in the panhandle.

While open to the White House overtures, Martinez is said to be reluctant to join the fray but is scheduled to meet Wednesday with White House counselor Karl Rove, who is known for his persuasive gifts.

The fact that the Senate seat is open may help change the thinking of several Florida Republicans besides Martinez. Graham is the iron man of Florida politics and has never lost an election. If he fails in his presidential bid, the July filing deadline leaves him plenty of time after the early primaries to get back in the race. Many Democratic politicos, however, Graham would be an asset in the number two position on the Democrat's national ticket if he is not the nominee, and Florida law does not permit him to run for the Senate simultaneously if he is chosen.

By any other name…

U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the Committee on House Administration, has ordered that all references to "French Fries" be replaced with the words "Freedom Fries" wherever they appear on the menu in the restaurants operated in the Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn House office buildings. The change comes as the result of an effort led by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who represents a district that includes a number of significant U.S. military bases.

Jones viewed the initiative as a symbolic effort to show support for American troops and displeasure at France's continued opposition to U.S.-led initiatives concerning Iraq. "Watching France's self-serving politics of passive aggression in this effort has discouraged me more than I can say. I am grateful to Mr. Ney for standing with me today as we publicly declare our support for our nation's troops and our sincere disappointment in our old friends, the French," Jones said when informed that the change had been ordered.

Ney also ordered that the phrase "Freedom Toast" be used in place of the traditional "French Toast," in a letter to the U.S. House's chief administrative officer, who oversees the operations of the food service facilities.

Help wanted…

The American Muslim Council's Eric Erfan Vickers resigned his position on March 1. In a release from the AMC, board chairman Dr. Yahya Basha wished Erfan good luck in future endeavors and thanked him for "his contribution to the American Muslim community."

Vickers' tenure as AMC executive director was somewhat rocky and he reportedly clashed with the board on more than one occasion. The final straw, according to those familiar with the situation, was the statement Vickers issued after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, speculating on whether divine intervention played a role in causing it. The suggestion that it did provoked outrage on the part of several members of Congress, one of whom — Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. — works closely with a number of Arab and Muslim American groups on questions related to civil liberties.

Nadler called Vickers' statement "reprehensible," and, in a Feb. 4 letter, called on him to reflect upon the remarks, repudiate them and to apologize. An AMC spokesman said the controversy over the remarks was a small factor in bringing about the separation.

"It is unthinkable that any American would take such perverse pleasure in a tragedy that so greatly affects not only the people of the United States, but also the people of India and Israel," he wrote. "(T)o presume that a divine purpose reflects one's own hateful feelings toward the Jewish People is insulting to all people of faith and good will," he said.


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