Martinez touts his diverse experience, compassion

There’s no denying Mel Martinez has a great life story.

He fled from Cuba as a 15-year-old, alone, his parents remaining on the communist island hoping one day to join him. He eventually was placed with a foster family in Orlando, learned English and worked odd jobs that helped him buy his father a used car when his parents arrived in the United States four years later.

He put himself through college, made millions as a trial lawyer, was elected chairman of Orange County and served in President Bush’s Cabinet as Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Now he hopes to use the story to persuade voters to send him back to Washington as a senator.

“It’s a mix of experiences that I think keeps me in touch with the common man,” Martinez says. “My understanding of freedom and oppression, my understanding of a government that ran amok and tried to do everything and did nothing well, my understanding of having to make your way in life, having to pay your way through college, living alone, living in a foster home.”

Those things, he says, give him compassion and an appreciation for the “American dream.”

He is also trying to show Republican primary voters he is a true conservative. He touts his relationship with Bush, saying he was there when the president formed his policy and wants to be in the Senate to help advance it.

He points at cutting taxes while serving as Orange County chairman, his work with anti-abortion and pro-adoption groups, and eliminating fraud at HUD.

“Mel is a conservative Republican with conservative values, and they are the same traditional values that are the mainstay of the party’s platform,” says Al Cardenas, one of three former state Republican Party chairmen endorsing Martinez.

Martinez is seeking the seat being vacated by Democrat Bob Graham. Other Republicans in the race include state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, businessman Doug Gallagher, lawyer Larry Klayman and former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum. Martinez is running a close second to McCollum in recent polls.

Trial lawyer

What Martinez doesn’t highlight during campaign stops is how he earned millions as a trial lawyer and once served as president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. Primary opponents use that as a point of attack, hoping that Republicans who want to limit awards in lawsuits will oppose him.

It’s debatable whether the tactic will work.

“Martinez also has a lot of other plusses. With his close connections to the White House, I think I would rather have that,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor.

Opponents argue that Martinez won’t help President Bush’s effort to pass limits on awards granted in malpractice suits. Martinez favors a $500,000 cap on certain kinds of damages, such as pain and suffering, which is twice the limit Bush has sought.

McCollum has gone so far as calling him a “liberal trial lawyer” and comparing him to Democratic vice presidential pick John Edwards. Martinez says the attacks don’t stick, but he still tries to separate his past from the malpractice debate.

“I had hundreds of cases, which I think three were malpractice,” he says. “I did a lot of insurance work. I did a lot of automobile-accident cases in which people were hurt. I did some product-liability work.”

And he said he represented people who truly needed the help.

“Just recently I was going through the drive-through at a Boston Market and the lady behind the counter recognized me and reminded me I represented her daughter, who was abused at a day-care center,” Martinez says. “She’s now going to college thanks to the money we put away for her.”

Fund-raising leader

Despite the attacks, Martinez has been gaining in polls. And since entering the race in January, more money has been contributed to his campaign than to any other Republican on the ballot.

Part of that can be attributed to the strong support from many Republican leaders and the perception that Bush picked him to run.

That perception is also fueled by support from people such as U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Even though his committee has to stay neutral in the race, Allen personally asked Martinez to run.

Martinez has also picked up endorsements from 15 other U.S. senators, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Jack Kemp, Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential race, is also backing Martinez.

“Mel is what I call a progressive conservative. He’s got conservative values, and he’s got a reform agenda,” Kemp said. “Martinez is pro-life. He’s pro-enterprise zones. He supports the president.”


On the Web: Go to for the candidates’ positions on the issues, profiles of the Democratic candidates and profiles of Republican candidates Johnnie Byrd, Doug Gallagher and Larry Klayman.

Friday: A profile of Republican Bill McCollum.

Inside today: Betty Castor leads other Democrats in a Mason-Dixon poll; candidates to debate the issues today; campaign accused of “mean-spirited” attack. 2B


Age: 57

Education: bachelor of arts, Florida State University, 1969; law degree, Florida State University Law School, 1973

Experience: Secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development, 2001-2003; Orange County chairman, 1998-2001; Orlando Utilities Commission president, 1994-1997; Orlando Housing Authority chairman; lawyer, private practice

Family: Wife, Kathryn (Kitty); three children