- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, wants to make his mark on Social Security and tort reform — two issues expected among the top priorities of the 109th Congress — and to do so by reaching out to Democrats.

Mr. Martinez, the first Cuban-born senator, talked conservative values on the campaign trail in Florida, while stressing the need to “work with the other side” to get things done.

With tort reform on the top of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s agenda, Mr. Martinez will get a good start testing his middle-ground politics in a polarized Congress.

“The problem is the two sides are fixed in the extremes; I see the need for people to come to the middle,” Mr. Martinez said.

“I have a lot of experience in this area coming from a trial lawyer’s background, so I know those guys and their issues. But there are [litigation] abuses and in that area there needs to be reform,” he said.

He said doctors need to be able to do their jobs without also having to be “claims managers,” while giving people who have been legitimately injured the right to equitable compensation.

Although tort legislation will not go through any of the committees on which he serves, Mr. Martinez said he will make his voice heard.

Social Security reform is another area where Mr. Martinez said he will begin in the thick of the issue and try to attract others, making his stand from a seat on the Special Committee on Aging.

Florida long has been home to one of the heaviest concentrations of senior citizens in the country, though this has become less so in the past 15 years.

“I am committed to taking a bold step looking at private accounts while maintaining the system,” he said, adding as a caveat that “I am very concerned about the transitional costs; the $2 trillion price tag is high for me, and I don’t want to add to the deficit.”

Mr. Martinez, who has repeatedly said he is humbled by his election, hasn’t come up with a solution, but says he eagerly anticipates a detailed legislative package from the Bush administration to spark debate in the coming months.

From humble beginnings — living through Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, being separated from his family for four years, learning English, graduating high school and paying his own way through college — Mr. Martinez has been called a testament to American values.

Mr. Martinez, 58, was born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba, in 1946. When he was 15, he came to the United States with missionaries working for Operation Peter Pan, a Roman Catholic Church program that helped more than 14,000 children flee Mr. Castro’s developing tyranny.

He spent his first four years in the United States with two foster families in Orlando, Fla., before being reunited with his parents. He would leave high school and go to work, while also attending Florida State University to receive his bachelor’s degree and then his law degree.

His career spanned 25 years as a trial lawyer before he successfully entered politics by winning the race for Orange County chairman. But he gained a wealth of experience along the way on school and bank boards, chambers of commerce and chairmanships of housing authorities and Little Leagues, in addition to having his own legal practice and serving on law commissions.

President Bush tapped him to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 2000, given his successful programs in Orange County. And in November, he became the first Cuban-American to win a seat in the Senate, defeating Democrat Betty Castor in one of the closest Senate races in the country.

During the campaign, Mr. Martinez was painted as a “right-wing extremist” by Mrs. Castor. He also was accused of “aspiring to the politics of hate” by primary opponent Bill McCollum, after the campaign put out a statement — which Mr. Martinez said he did not sanction — accusing Mr. McCollum of being a patsy for the homosexual lobby.

But Mr. Martinez said he is none of those things and likened himself to Mr. Bush as a compassionate conservative.

“I said it before that I will be a senator for all Floridians, Democrats and Republicans alike — everyone,” he said.

“One of the great frustrations of a campaign is you have very little opportunity to be real,” he said.

He wasted no time getting real with people and letting them know where he stands.

On energy policy, there is no room for compromise as far as Florida’s coastline is concerned.

“The state of Florida must protect its pristine beaches and stand firm that no offshore drilling occurs in Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline,” Mr. Martinez said, adding that funding for the Everglades and continued hurricane relief are among his top local priorities.

Mr. Frist said he will soon put Mr. Martinez’s well-rounded knowledge to good use in the Senate.

“He is who I will listen to on hurricane relief,” Mr. Frist said. With “Housing and Urban Development under Mel Martinez, homeownership reached an all-time high of 69 percent, so we will rely on his expertise there as well.”

In addition to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Mr. Martinez also will serve on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Foreign Relations, and Special Aging committees.

Mr. Martinez will be the only Hispanic in the Republican Senatorial Caucus. The only other Hispanic in the Senate will be Sen. Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat, with whom Mr. Martinez joked about forming a separate caucus. But he says he will work both sides of the aisle.

Floridians, particularly Hispanics, are enamored with him as a champion demolisher of the glass ceiling and the hope for their future.

“He has a way with people, a compassion that is so profound, and I think he will surprise a lot of people that way he did when he was HUD secretary,” said George Espada, president of the Clay County Hispanic Republican Party and a Brooklyn native of Puerto Rican descent.

He said Mr. Martinez will be an inspiration to all Hispanics seeking public office and for Cubans who hope their nation will once again be free.

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