Florida senator to replace Mehlman as Republican Party chairman

Monday, November 13th 2006, 3:19 pm

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sen. Mel Martinez, the first-term Florida lawmaker who previously served in President Bush's Cabinet, will assume the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, GOP officials said Monday.

Martinez, 60, will replace current chairman Ken Mehlman, who will leave the post in January at the end of his two-year term, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting a formal announcement.

Martinez will remain in the Senate. Mike Duncan, the RNC's current general counsel and a former party treasurer, will run the day-to-day operations at the party's Capitol Hill headquarters.

Martinez is one of three Hispanics in the Senate along with Democratic Sens. Ken Salazar of Colorado and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

Martinez was tapped in 2001 as President Bush's secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He resigned in 2003 to run for the open Senate seat created when incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Graham decided not to seek another term. Martinez was elected with 49 percent of the vote _ a slim margin that was credited to Bush's win in that state.

Martinez is familiar with hard-fought campaigns. His election over Democrat Betty Castor was marked by rough television ads and squabbling over the war in Iraq. During the campaign's final weeks, Castor repeatedly accused him of running ``the nastiest campaign in the history of this state.'' Republican party elder Connie Mack scolded Martinez for the negativity.

``There are very few opportunities for you to be real. For people to actually get to know who you are because you're viewed through a prism of these TV ads, all of which seem so contentious and difficult most of the time,'' Martinez said after his election.

Martinez started slowly in the Senate where he was embarrassed by a one-page unsigned memo that originated in his office. Written by a Martinez aide and disavowed by Senate Republicans, the memo laid out the political benefits to getting involved in the fate of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman whose end-of-life battle became a rallying cry for conservatives.

``This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue,'' said the memo. Its author resigned.

Martinez can credit a Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez for helping give him a national profile. He argued on national television talk shows and before a U.S. Senate committee that the boy should stay in the United States. He also invited Elian to Walt Disney World before the boy was returned to Cuba.

Martinez fled Cuba in 1962 as a 15-year-old. His parents remained on the communist island, hoping one day to join him. He eventually was placed with a foster family in Orlando, studied 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 and served as president of the Orlando Utilities Commission from 1994 to 1997. He was elected as the Orange County, Fla., chairman, serving from 1998 to 2001.

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