Foglesong, Richard E. Immigrant Prince: Mel Martinez and the American Dream. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.
After fleeing Cuba in 1962 to escape an outbreak of violence in his hometown, Mel Martinez settled in Florida. He served in local government and in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet before being elected the first Cuban American to serve in the U.S. Senate. While staunchly conservative on many issues, he was a moderate voice in support of comprehensive immigration reform. “Bringing people together is my nature,” noted Martinez, the only immigrant among his Senate colleagues. “There is nothing I’d rather do in the United States Senate than work to reach a consensus, build a bridge, seek and maintain common ground.”1
Melquiades R. (Mel) Martinez was born October 23, 1946, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, to Melquiades and Gladys Ruiz Martinez, who raised their three children in a devout Roman Catholic family. Melquiades, Sr., was a veterinarian.2 In the face of the Castro regime’s increased hostility toward Catholics, Martinez’s parents sent him to the United States in 1962 through Operation Pedro Pan, a program organized by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church.3 Martinez was placed with a foster family in Orange County, Florida, until his parents arrived in the United States in 1966. He earned a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from Florida State University in 1969 and a law degree from that institution in 1973. He worked in private practice for nearly two decades and was president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers from 1988 to 1989. He also chaired the Orlando Housing Authority and served on the board of directors of the Orlando Utilities Commission. Martinez met his future wife, Kitty, while they were students at Florida State. The couple raised three children: Lauren, John, and Andrew.4
Initially affiliated with the Democratic Party, Martinez switched his allegiance to the Republican Party when President Ronald W. Reagan took office. In 1998 he won election as Orange County chairman. Martinez also took an active role in the 2000 presidential campaign as co-chairman of the Florida operation of Republican nominee George W. Bush. After the election, President Bush nominated Martinez as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 23, 2001. As Secretary, Martinez was a forceful advocate for homeownership and for the advancement of public-private initiatives with faith-based and community services. At HUD he established a $1.7 billion tax credit program for investors building affordable housing and a $1 billion program to help 650,000 low-income families make down payments.5
In 2003 three-term incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida announced his intention to not seek re-election in 2004, setting off a scramble in both parties to recruit candidates. At the urging of President Bush and Senate Republicans, Martinez resigned his position at HUD on December 12, 2003, to run for the open seat.6 In the Republican primary, he faced 10-term U.S. Representative Bill McCollum.7 After prevailing in the primary with 44.9 percent of the vote, Martinez faced Betty Castor, a former state legislator, state education commissioner, and president of the University of Florida, in the general election. The candidates differed on virtually every issue, from abortion to the Iraq War.8 Martinez won, with 49.4 of the vote versus Castor’s 48.3 percent.9 “Only in America can a 15-year-old boy arrive on our shores alone, not speaking the language—with a suitcase and the hope of a brighter future—and rise to serve in the Cabinet of the President of the United States. And only in America can that same boy today stand one step away from making history as the first Cuban-American to serve in the United States Senate,” Martinez said.10
Mel Martinez was sworn in as a Member of the 109th Congress (2005–2007) on January 4, 2005, and acquired seats on the committees on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Energy and Natural Resources; and Foreign Relations. He also served on the Select Committee on Aging, and later secured seats on the Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.11
On national issues, he attempted to forge agreement with Senators of both parties. “You get things done by reaching for the middle,” Martinez said.12 On energy policy, for instance, he took a middle position on opening up more offshore areas for deep drilling, though he noted that such expansion was only a “component … of a comprehensive energy policy.”13 Martinez supported drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on the condition that Florida’s Gulf Coast would be sheltered from oil and gas exploration. He introduced a measure to permanently ban drilling in the outer continental shelf off the Florida coastline, adding, “I can clearly state that [Floridians] do not want drilling now, and I do not see a scenario anywhere on the horizon where we would change that position.”14
An issue on which Senator Martinez cast himself as a centrist was immigration reform. His childhood experiences shaped his approach, which differed from his party’s opposition to the establishment of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.15 He opposed efforts to build a 1,500-mile-long wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. “What the wall symbolizes is not what we want—the face of America we want to show,” Martinez said.16 In 2005 and 2006, he teamed up with Senator Barack Obama of Illinois to advance legislation using provisions for border enforcement and a guest worker program to address the issue of illegal immigration “in a realistic fashion without providing amnesty.”17 Among the proposals Martinez supported was an initiative that was introduced in the Senate as early as 2001. The purpose of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was to provide a path to education and permanent citizenship for the minor children of undocumented immigrants. “I’m very empathetic towards giving opportunity to children who have lived in this country all their lives … to reach their dreams and not be held back in any way,” Martinez said.18 While a comprehensive version of the immigration reform bill eventually passed the Senate, competing proposals in the House prevented its enactment into law.
At the opening of the 110th Congress (2007–2009), after Republicans had suffered heavy losses in the 2006 elections, President Bush nominated Martinez for chairman of the Republican National Committee, with responsibility for fundraising and communicating the party’s message to the public. Political observers viewed the appointment partly as an effort to court Hispanic voters. Martinez was elected to the post in early 2007, but some Republicans opposed him because of his position on immigration. His goal was to “deliver a message that conveys to the American people that we are a party that has renewed itself and that has answers to their everyday problems.” To allow Martinez to continue performing Senate duties, his post as chairman of the Republican National Committee was structured so that he could serve as general chairman while a directing chairman ran daily operations.19 Ultimately, however, Martinez served only 10 months. Announcing his decision to leave the post on October 19, 2007, Martinez insisted he had rebuilt the party and its fundraising capacity, noting, “It was probably a good moment to get back to my main job, my real obligation and passion.”20
In December 2008, Martinez announced his intention to not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010. Then, in August 2009, he announced he would resign as soon as a replacement could be appointed, citing a desire to return to Florida and his family.21 “This is of my own free will,” Martinez said, “only my desire to move on and get on with the rest of my life.”22 Martinez retired September 9, 2010, after Florida governor Charlie Crist selected his chief of staff, George S. Lemieux, to complete the term. Delivering his farewell address, Martinez stated, “Having lived through the onset of tyranny in one country and played a part in the proud democratic traditions of another, I leave here today with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity to give back to the Nation that I love—the Nation not of my birth, but the Nation of my choice.”23
1Allison North Jones and Ellen Gedalius, “Martinez ‘Humbled to Be’ U.S. Senator,” 4 November 2004, Tampa Tribune: 5.
2Mel Martinez, A Sense of Belonging: From Castro’s Cuba to the U.S. Senate, One Man’s Pursuit of the American Dream (New York: Crown Forum, 2008): 3–12.
3Official Biography of Senator Mel Martinez, http://martinez.senate. gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=AboutMartinezBiography&C FID=7934585&CFTOKEN=17985484 (accessed 3 July 2007, inactive website).
4Mark Schlueb, “Immigrant’s Rise to Success Appeals to GOP; Sent from Castro’s Cuba as a Teen, Mel Martinez Pulled Himself Way Up,” 6 December 2003, Orlando Sentinel: A6; Keith Epstein, “Humble Origins Are Key to Martinez’s Persona,” 10 August 2004, Tampa Tribune: 1; Libby Copeland, “Risky Political Waters,” 8 April 2006, Washington Post: C1.
5Matthew Vadum, “Bush Cabinet: Senate Unanimously Confirms Mel Martinez as New HUD Secretary,” 24 January 2001, Bond Buyer: 4; Almanac of American Politics, 2006 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Group, Inc., 2005): 403–404.
6Bill Adair and Steve Bousquet, “Martinez Quits Cabinet; Is Poised for Senate Run,” 10 December 2003, St. Petersburg Times: 1B; Tamarz Lytle, “Martinez to Make Senate Bid; Cabinet Member Will Resign, Head Back to Orlando,” 6 December 2003, Orlando Sentinel: A1; John Kennedy and Mike Silva, “Martinez Mulls Bid for U.S. Senate,” 13 November 2003, Orlando Sentinel: A1.
7Steve Bousquet, “Rival Pans Martinez’s History as Trial Lawyer,” 11 August 2004, St. Petersburg Times: 6B; Steve Bousquet, “GOP Senate Candidate Attacks as Election Nears,” 20 August 2004, St. Petersburg Times: 5B.
8Anita Kumar and Steve Bousquet, “Castor, Martinez Now Set Sights on Middle,” 2 September 2004, St. Petersburg Times: 1B; Beth Reinhard, “Storms Don’t Derail Castor, Martinez,” 12 September 2004, Miami Herald: 2B.
9“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/institution/election-statistics/election-statistics/.
10Lesley Clark and Frank Davies, “Mel Martinez Says He’s Proof of American Dream,” 3 September 2004, Miami Herald: 3A.
11Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart III, Committees in the U.S. Congress: 1993–2010 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011): 830; Almanac of American Politics, 2006: 404–406.
12Wes Allison, “Sen. Martinez Makes a Move toward the Middle,” 5 January 2005, St. Petersburg Times: 1A.
13Congressional Record, Senate, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (31 July 2008): S7812.
14Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (20 June 2005): S6802. See also Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (14 June 2005): S6451–S6453.
15Martinez spoke often on the Senate Floor about immigration reform. See for example, Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 March 2006): S2519–S2520; Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 April 2006): S3371–S3372; Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (17 May 2006): S4672; Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 May 2006): S5087; Congressional Record, Senate, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (28 June 2007): S8647–S8648.
16Copeland, “Risky Political Waters.”
17“GOP Ends Rift, Moves Ahead on Immigration,” 16 December 2005, Miami Herald: 6.
18“Latino Leadership in the U.S. Senate—A Life of Public Service,” an Interview with Senator Mel Martinez, 18 February 2005, Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy 17 (2004–2005): 12–13.
19Anita Kumar, “Martinez Steps Up to Top GOP Role,” 20 January 2007, St. Petersburg Times: 5A; Lesley Clark, “Some in GOP Oppose Martinez,” 17 January 2007, Miami Herald: A3.
20Lesley Clark, “Martinez Resigns as Republican Party Chief,” 20 October 2007, Miami Herald: 5; Larry Lipman, “Martinez Resigns as Republican Chairman,” 20 October 2007, Palm Beach Post: 10A.
21Josh Hafenbrack, Aaron Deslatte, and Mark Matthews, “Sen. Mel Martinez Resigns; Gov. Charlie Crist Will Pick His Replacement,” 7 August 2009, South Florida Sun-Sentinel: n.p.; Joe Follick, “Martinez Giving Up Senate Seat Early,” 8 August 2009, Sarasota Herald-Tribune: A1.
22David M. Herszenhorn, “Martinez of Florida Says He Is Leaving Senate,” 8 August 2009, New York Times: n.p.
23Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (9 September 2009): S9147.
Foglesong, Richard E. Immigrant Prince: Mel Martinez and the American Dream. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.
Martinez, Mel, with Ed Breslin. A Sense of Belonging: From Castro's Cuba to the U.S. Senate, One Man's Pursuit of the American Dream. New York: Crown Forum, 2008.
"Mel Martinez" in Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2013.
U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Mel Martinez, United States Senator, 2005-2009. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010.