- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. — Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida said Friday he will step down from the Senate before his term ends, adding fresh intrigue over who will fill the seat.

Martinez, the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate, told reporters at a news conference he was leaving office of his “own free will.” He announced in December he would not to seek to re-election in 2010.

“There’s no impending reason, it’s just my desire to move on,” he said.

Martinez confirms plans to step down

Martinez, known as a voice on immigration and issues involving Cuba, said the next phase of his life will be in the private sector, but he didn’t have any specific plans. He said there was nothing in his personal life or about his health that motivated his decision.

“I just feel it is time for me now to return to my family, to Florida, to home,” he said. “It will give me a chance to get on with the rest of my life … I never intended to be in public life all of my life.”

Martinez’s decision puts Republican Gov. Charlie Crist — who is running to replace him — in charge of filling the job in the interim. During a news conference in Tampa, Crist said he would not appoint himself and he has “lots of volunteers.” The governor said he would make an announcement in the coming weeks.

Crist said Martinez called him Thursday to tell him he was resigning.

Crist will almost surely pick a Republican, meaning Martinez’s resignation will have no effect on the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats control the 60 seats needed to overcome Republican filibusters. Officials predicted that Crist, who faces a Republican primary challenge and several Democratic contenders, would select a “placeholder” for the temporary assignment.

Martinez said his resignation will be effective when a successor is named.

Speculation swirled about whom Crist would nominate to replace the 62-year-old, and some of the talk centered around former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, 69, who told Associated Press on Friday that he would love to have the job.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa, who served as governor from 1987 to 1991, is also rumored to be among the possibilities. Bob Martinez told the AP he had not been approached about the job.

With Republicans struggling for relevance in the Democratic-controlled Congress, Martinez is the second GOP senator in recent days to announce his resignation. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said in late July she would resign this fall to challenge fellow Republican Rick Perry for governor of Texas.

Martinez is the second prominent Republican in the last few weeks to decide to resign before finishing their term. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stepped down July 26.

Martinez’s resignation leaves just one Hispanic in the Senate, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Martinez was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 after serving as the U.S. secretary for housing and urban development under President George W. Bush. He served as general chairman of the Republican National Committee for 10 months, resigning in October 2007.

He was born in Cuba and was the only immigrant currently serving in the U.S. Senate. At 15, he fled to America as part of a Catholic humanitarian effort called Operation Pedro Pan. Catholic charitable groups provided Martinez, who was alone and spoke virtually no English, a temporary home at two youth facilities. He then lived with two foster families, with whom he remains close. He was reunited with his family in Orlando in 1966.

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