Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, co-author of a bill to grant amnesty to illegal aliens, has been picked by White House strategist Karl Rove to be general chairman of the Republican National Committee, RNC officials confirmed yesterday.
Some RNC members greeted the news as another example of White House cronyism, reminiscent of President Bush’s attempt to name his personal friend and general counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, a nomination withdrawn in response to outrage from the party’s conservative supporters.
While the chairman is elected by the 165-member RNC — which next meets in Washington in January — the committee traditionally acts as a rubber stamp for a Republican president when the party controls the White House.
The surprise Martinez appointment, leaked yesterday to selected TV outlets and wire services, cut off a move by conservative Republicans to have Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele take over the national party chairmanship. Current Chairman Ken Mehlman announced last week he would step down at the January meeting.
While Mr. Martinez will remain in his Senate seat in becoming the public spokesman for the RNC as general chairman, committee members said, the RNC’s current general counsel Mike Duncan — a committee member from Kentucky — will be named chairman to run the day-to-day national party operations.
Mr. Martinez “will do a first-rate job for the Republican Party,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, who said he has “the highest regard for his ability and experience, and highly [supports] his candidacy.”
An RNC spokeswoman said she could not officially confirm the Martinez-Duncan appointments and that an official announcement would be made in a couple of days. Mr. Martinez served as the Bush administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development before narrowly winning a 2004 Senate race in Florida.
Some RNC members, already dismayed by last week’s election that swept Republicans from control of Congress, expressed anger at the way Mr. Rove leaked his choice of Mr. Martinez immediately after a conference call in which the Florida senator’s name was floated for the first time.
During the call yesterday with RNC members in which Mr. Rove, Mr. Mehlman and White House Political Director Sara Taylor participated, some members raised the names of Mr. Martinez and Mr. Duncan as possible successors to Mr. Mehlman, said an RNC member who was involved.
“But Rove and Mehlman never said they were going to name these people as chairmen, and we never voted or even gave our opinion,” the member said.
The move was seen as a signal that the White House intends to push through Congress the “comprehensive” immigration bill — which Mr. Martinez and Mr. Hagel backed in the Senate — that was blocked by conservative Republicans in the House.
“Clearly, Martinez is going to lead the fight for amnesty that Bush couldn’t win when Republicans controlled the Congress,” the RNC member said.
While campaigning for the Senate in Maryland, Mr. Steele was an outspoken critic of the Hagel-Martinez measure — which would have created a guest-worker program and allowed most illegal aliens to become citizens — blaming “the partisan gamesmanship of Washington insiders” for the failure to deal with the problem.
“Until we see Congress take some real and immediate steps to secure our borders, we can hardly expect Americans to seriously consider proposals for dealing with those illegal immigrants already in our country and those employers who fail to adequately report them,” Mr. Steele told the Baltimore Sun in August.
Aides to the lieutenant governor confided that Mr. Steele was “furious over his treatment by Bush operatives,” who they said accused him of “not being a team player” because he had spoken to The Washington Times last week after his name was first proposed for the RNC post. Steele aides said White House officials threatened to withhold from Mr. Steele a Cabinet appointment he had been promised in lieu of the RNC chairmanship.
Mr. Steele’s campaign — particularly his humorous TV ads and his nationally televised debate against Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin on NBC’s “Meet the Press” — impressed many conservative Republicans.
“Michael Steele would make a superb Republican National Committee chairman,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times. “His race for the Senate was probably the most positive and most likable of any race in 2006.”
“Steele ran one of the best Senate campaigns in the country,” said North Carolina Rep. Patrick T. McHenry. “Steele would be great in a prominent and strategy-making spot in the party.”
“Everybody I know down here who got a chance to see Steele’s campaign ads thought they were great — they had substance, and so does he,” said Cindy Costa, a South Carolina RNC member from Charleston.
Two months after taking office, Mr. Martinez was involved in an incident that caused Republicans embarrassment in the Terri Schiavo case, when — as he later explained — he accidentally handed Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, a memo describing political motivations for the high-profile congressional effort to save the incapacitated Florida woman’s life.
“This is an important moral issue, and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue,” said the March 2005 memo, written by a Martinez aide. “This is a great political issue because Senator [Bill] Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a co-sponsor, and this is a tough issue for Democrats.”
Some RNC members yesterday saw the naming of Mr. Martinez as a continuing tendency of the Bush administration to manipulate the national party.
Jon Ward contributed to this article.