Martinez’s rides inspiring life story to Senate nomination

ORLANDO, Fla. – Mel Martinez now has another chapter to add to the inspiring life story he featured during his primary campaign.

The boy who fled Cuba 42 years ago is now going to represent the Republican Party in it’s effort to take Sen. Bob Graham’s seat away from the Democrats.

Martinez left 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, studied hard to learn 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 and earned a law degree, made millions as a trial lawyer, was elected as the Orange County chairman and later picked to serve on President Bush’s Cabinet as Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The boy who flew alone from Cuba in 1962 and returned to Florida 40 years later on Air Force One as a cabinet member now 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. I’m not someone who’s forgotten where he comes from,” Martinez said during the campaign. “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.”

That, he said, gives him a sense of compassion and an appreciation for the “American dream.”

During the campaign he also tried to show he is a true conservative, perhaps going a little too far late in the primary race when his campaign attacked former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, suggesting he aligned with the radical gay lobby when he supported a hate crime bill that protected homosexuals, among others.

Until that point, Martinez’s campaign largely focused on his service and commitment to Bush. He repeatedly said he was there when the president formed his policy and wants to be in the Senate to help advance it.

He also pointed 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,” said Al Cardenas, one of three former state Republican Party chairmen who endorsed Martinez. “He’s a fiscal conservative, he’s a social conservative.”

What Martinez didn’t highlight during campaign stops is how he once served as president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. It’s a part of his career that primary opponents used unsuccessfully as a point of attack, saying Martinez doesn’t support the president’s call for a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits. Martinez supports a $500,000 cap.

While not often calling attention to his previous profession, Martinez defended it.

“That’s the least of what I did,” he said of malpractice cases. “I had hundreds of cases, which I think three were malpractice. 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-thru 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. She’s now going to college thanks to the money we put away for her,” Martinez said. “I feel good about cases like that.”

The attacks didn’t stick largely because he had strong support from many Republican leaders. There was also the perception that Bush picked him to run for the seat. While neither the White House nor Martinez never acknowledged that there was encouragement from Bush, Republicans leaders from Florida to Washington have said they have little doubt that’s why Martinez got in the race.

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

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