Martinez defends his past with exclusive club

As a private citizen, the Senate candidate joined a club accused of discrimination to spur change, he says.

Published July 16, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez spent about five years in the 1990s as a member of an exclusive country club that was criticized for discriminating against women, blacks and Jews.

Martinez said he quit the Country Club of Orlando before he ran for Orange County chairman in 1998 because the club was too slow to admit minorities. His membership would have been a major liability in a political campaign in which he pledged to be an inclusive leader.

"I was joining a club that's exclusive in its membership, not inclusive. I viewed their invitation of me as part of their effort to change, but it was not changing," Martinez said Thursday. "As a private citizen, it's one thing to join whatever I want to. But I didn't want to be, as a public official, also representative of what that club stood for."

On the campaign trail, Martinez speaks of how his faith helped him cope with discrimination as a Catholic and a Cuban-American. But his own involvement with a club accused of discrimination, and his decision to quit as he contemplated a political career, have not previously been publicized.

Martinez served as U.S. housing secretary under President Bush until December 2003, when he resigned to run for the Senate.

In recent years, the Country Club of Orlando has invited blacks, Jews and women to join, said Martinez's brother Ralph, who is still a member.

"A thing of the past," Ralph Martinez says of discrimination in the club. But he agreed with his brother that for many years, the club had an informal policy of not welcoming women or minorities.

"It was sort of de facto. Minorities didn't seem to join," Ralph Martinez said, "and I think some people felt they weren't moving quickly enough."

A message left with club's general manager, Gerald Valone, was not returned.

Established in 1911, the club is a neatly manicured oasis surrounded by the neon blight of Orange Blossom Trail. For decades it has been an enclave for the city's white, moneyed establishment. Like similar clubs in many Southern cities, its members were drawn from the ranks of the professional class: doctors, lawyers, bankers, developers.

They were white, male and Christian.

The club was sued in 1998 by a former black groundskeeper who said he was not allowed to play on the golf course after working hours, as white employees could. Ted Ward said the club paid him less than whites who did the same work.

Ward's lawyer, James Turner of Orlando, said Thursday he settled the case with the club several years ago.

"I hate the Country Club of Orlando, and I hate its policies," Turner said in a brief interview. "But I have had absolutely no contact with the Country Club of Orlando since then."

In 1990, members of a Jewish Community Center women's tennis team boycotted the club, saying they felt uncomfortable on the grounds.

As a prominent lawyer and rising star in civic circles in the early 1990s, Martinez said he was invited to be the first Hispanic member to join the club. He said he believes he joined in 1991 or 1992 and left in 1996.

"I believe I was the first and only. I've never looked at their registry," Martinez said. "How does any place ever integrate? How does any place ever become more inclusive, unless somebody joins it?"

He said he urged the club's membership committee to invite blacks to join, but it didn't happen. He said the cost of membership, more than $10,000 a year, was probably a factor.

Roy "Skip" Dalton, Martinez's law partner at the time, also quit the club over its restrictive ways. Dalton said Martinez's decision to join the club should be seen as a positive development.

"I think it's fair to say he helped move the club in the direction of diversity," Dalton said. "I don't think it's fair to put Mel in the good ol' boy camp."

At the time, Martinez said he was active on boards seeking to give minorities and women a stronger voice in Orlando. He said his phone rang often with a businessman asking, " "Will you help us recruit a Hispanic for our board?' That was fairly typical," he said.

Martinez also was a personal injury lawyer who estimated that a fifth of his clients were Hispanic immigrants. He was the attorney for a Charter Review Commission that was advocating not only the creation of the powerful county chairman's post, but single-member districts for County Commission to give Hispanics and blacks a greater chance of being elected.

Looking back, Martinez said, the club in the 1990s was a bastion of the old South.

"Every Southern city had one," he said. "That club can do whatever it wants, but as a government official, you have different responsibilities. I would never join a place that would make someone feel disenfranchised."

- Times staff writer Bill Adair and researchers Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.