Martinez connects with voters, struggles with image

NAPLES — The two sides of Mel Martinez emerged at a campaign stop at a small manufacturing plant.

Using the backdrop of Haynes Corp., a company that makes fuel injection systems, Martinez bashed his Democratic U.S. Senate opponent, Betty Castor, for being “bad for business” and a tax advocate.

With the TV cameras rolling, and former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp at his side, Martinez displayed his aggressive campaign style, which has drawn criticism, if not condemnation, during the Republican primary and general election campaign.

But an unscripted event highlighted another side of Martinez while he toured the plant before his press conference.

The majority of workers were Hispanic. Some of them were immigrants, just like Martinez was when he came to the United States as a 15-year-old Cuban refugee.

In the middle of a county better known for its wealthy Republicans, abundant golf courses and lavish homes, Martinez connected with the blue-collar workers. He talked to more than half a dozen of them, asking about their work and their families, comfortably switching from English to Spanish and back again.

Juan Hernandez, a 57-year- old machinist who came from Cuba 11 years ago, said he was impressed by Martinez’s vivid memories of their homeland, which Martinez hasn’t seen in 42 years.

Hernandez, a Republican who became a citizen two years ago, said he and his family would be “proud” to see Martinez become the first Cuban-American in the Senate.

“I was definitely impressed by him,” said Laura Matiaf, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Ecuadorian parents. Matiaf, a 34-year-old Democrat who holds an MBA, and who says she’s well aware that the U.S. Senate has no Hispanic members, said she would vote for Martinez.

“It’s good to have our voice, him as our representative of all the Hispanics in the Senate,” said Matiaf, the purchasing manager for Haynes.

Such are some of the dueling themes in Martinez’s campaign to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

The 58-year-old Republican is the embodiment of the immigrant success story. Brought to this country as a teenager who spoke little English, he became a lawyer, a county executive, a member of the president’s Cabinet and now a U.S. Senate candidate.

He has earned praise for some of his progressive policies, including a growth management initiative while he was Orange County chairman. He was a staunch advocate for minority homeownership while he was the federal secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

But he is also the Senate candidate who accused one of his conservative GOP rivals of being under the sway of “homosexual extremists” because he supported a hate-crimes bill.

The primary got so ugly that former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., declared Martinez had “forfeited his ability to attract mainstream Democrats and Independents” in the Nov. 2 general election.

Castor, his Democratic opponent, has accused him of running “despicable” campaign ads that make her look like a supporter of terrorism groups.

Martinez’s critics claim he has lurched to the right at the behest of White House conservatives who believe an aggressive campaign will help him win the Senate seat.

“His political soul has been hijacked by Karl Rove and the Republican handlers,” said Dick Batchelor, an Orlando Democrat who has known Martinez for 25 years and supported his bid for Orange County chairman in 1998.

“Mel playing along with it shows that he is willing to be pliable under either the political pressure or the political ether of power,” Batchelor said. “And that’s a very bad sign.”

Martinez, who says he has been the victim of negative attacks by Castor, dismisses such accusations as political rhetoric.

He said there were times in the Republican primary when he was accused of not being conservative enough. He said he prefers the label of “compassionate conservative.” And he said his record, particularly as HUD secretary and Orange County chairman, demonstrate his ability to govern from a mainstream, consensus-building viewpoint.

“Look at my record,” he said. “That’s not the record of an extreme right-winger.”

An immigrant’s story

Born Melquiades Rafael Martinez in 1946 in Sagua La Grande, Martinez spent his youth in a rural region of Cuba where his father had a successful practice as a veterinarian.

Fidel Castro upended that bucolic world. As a 15-year-old in 1962, Martinez came to the United States through a Catholic Church program known as Pedro Pan. His parents and other siblings followed in the next six years.

Martinez spent his early years in the United States in two foster homes in Orlando. The church provided a scholarship to the local Catholic high school. He played basketball and baseball.

Eventually reunited with his family, he attended Florida State University, where he earned a law degree and met his wife, Kathryn Tindal, known as Kitty. They have been married 33 years and have three children and two grandchildren.

Martinez said his experience as an immigrant has shaped his worldview.

“It’s made me who I am,” he said. “It’s a life-changing, altering experience. It made me very clear in thinking about foreign policy issues in terms of America’s place in the world and what a special place it is.”

He has also endured some of the challenges newcomers face in this country, including discrimination, although he neither elaborates nor dwells on that.

“I move past those things and look for the goodness in people,” he said.

After law school, Martinez became a successful trial lawyer, handling mainly cases involving accident victims who sued insurance companies.

Respected by his colleagues, he rose to the presidency of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers in 1989, after the trial lawyers’ group defeated a constitutional amendment that would have capped damages in liability lawsuits.

As a U.S. Senate candidate, Martinez is advocating a $500,000 cap on some damages, such as those for pain and suffering, causing his critics to claim he has turned his back on his past.

Martinez said he is proud of the work he did as a trial lawyer, but it has been more than a decade since he was actively involved with the trial lawyers’ political efforts.

“A lot has changed about my attitude, about the law profession and about the circumstances that I think require some (legal) reform,” he said.

Orange County and HUD

Martinez’s first formal foray into elective politics came in 1994. He ran as the lieutenant governor on the gubernatorial ticket of Ken Connor, a fellow trial lawyer and a leading abortion opponent. They finished fifth in the primary.

Martinez, a devout Catholic, has remained a consistent and lifelong activist against abortion.

His next political venture was successful, when he won election as Orange County chairman in 1998, beating a conservative state senator for the executive position.

He won praise for developing a growth management doctrine that required new development to be linked to school construction. He also cut taxes, while creating an afterschool program for middle-school students and establishing neighborhood health clinics.

State Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, said Martinez’s effort on school construction provided a framework for later state growth management legislation.

“He was a consensus builder,” Constantine said. “He looked for ways to balance the environment and economic development.”

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Martinez as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

His record at HUD, which is considered one of the lower-tier federal agencies, brought some successes and some setbacks.

Martinez failed to win congressional approval for requiring more disclosure in closing statements in home purchases. It would have saved an average of $800 for each home sale. But he said the measure was defeated because of pressure from special interest groups, including the title industry.

Martinez cites an increase in minority homeownership while he was HUD secretary as one of his accomplishments, along with initiatives to address homelessness and create more multi-family housing.

The National Journal, an independent publication that follows the federal government, gave Martinez a C-plus for his leadership of HUD in early 2003.

Martinez resigned his position at HUD last year, after he decided to enter the U.S. Senate race at the urging of White House strategists, who believe Martinez will help win more Hispanic votes for the GOP ticket in Florida.

Cuban policy

Martinez hasn’t returned to Cuba in the four decades he has been in the United States, and he says he won’t as long as the communists run the government.

He has been a consistent hardliner on dealing with Castro. He supports President Bush’s new Cuban policy, which restricts family visits to the island and limits money transfers from the United States to Cuba.

The policy affects many of those who are Martinez’s most ardent supporters, including Juan Hernandez, the Naples machinist who says he will vote for the Republican candidate.

Hernandez, who comes from Havana, said he visited his elderly mother last year. But now he can’t go back for another three years.

Martinez, who also has some elderly relatives in Cuba, said he understands the “difficulty and pain” families have faced.

But he says the right policy is to deny Castro’s regime the resources that could be used to further oppress the population.

He said, “My hope is frankly that by the time the three years are up, that it may be possible for all Cuban families to be together, to be united and to be living in freedom.”