The Mel Martinez campaign's unprincipled attacks on Bill McCollum show Martinez to be unworthy of support in Tuesday's Republican Senate primary.
Published August 30, 2004
The Times originally recommended former U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez to Republican voters in Tuesday's U.S. Senate primary, but that was before Martinez took his campaign into the gutter with hateful and dishonest attacks on his strongest opponent, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum. The Times is not willing to be associated with bigotry. As a result, we are taking the almost unprecedented step of rescinding our recommendation of Martinez.
We take our political recommendations seriously. Taking back a recommendation is an even more serious action, and we do so with regret, and some embarrassment. However, failing to act in response to Martinez's cynical attacks would risk damaging the trust we have worked to build with readers over the course of hundreds of election campaigns.
No matter what else Martinez may accomplish in public life, his reputation will be forever tainted by his campaign's nasty and ludicrous slurs of McCollum in the final days of this race. The slurs culminated with Martinez campaign advertisements that label McCollum - one of the most conservative moralists in Washington during his 20 years as a U.S. representative - "the new darling of the homosexual extremists" because he once favored a hate crime law that had bipartisan support. A few days earlier, the Martinez campaign arranged a conference call with reporters in which a group of right-wing Martinez supporters labeled McCollum "antifamily." Why? Because McCollum supports expanded stem cell research to find cures for deadly diseases - a position that is identical to those of Nancy Reagan, Connie Mack and many other prominent Republicans.
At Friday night's Republican Senate debate, McCollum confronted Martinez and called on him to repudiate his campaign's sleazy, homophobic advertisements. Martinez refused. Later, he said he "wouldn't be in favor of that kind of rhetoric." But the rhetoric calling McCollum "the new darling of the homosexual extremists" and accusing him of making "statements in order to appease ... the radical homosexual lobby" was included in advertising paid for by the Martinez campaign. If Martinez failed to review the ads before they were sent out under his name, he was irresponsible. If he knew what was in the ads and is now trying to distance himself, he is being dishonest. Either way, Floridians deserve better in a U.S. senator.
Martinez finally pulled the most offensive of the anti-McCollum ads from the air Saturday after a call from Gov. Jeb Bush, but he still hasn't disowned the slimy content of the ads.
McCollum has launched some offensive charges of his own during this campaign. His attacks on Martinez's career as a trial lawyer distort Martinez's record and have little relevance to most Florida voters. But McCollum has never in his career stooped to the depths to which the Martinez campaign has sunk.
We agree with McCollum on very few issues, but he proved during 10 terms in Congress to be an intelligent and hard-working representative who was true to his conservative principles. He is a genuine expert on national security, and he has thoughtful views on how the country should balance concerns over freedom and security on issues such as the Patriot Act and immigration law. His views on stem cell research and expanded health care hardly mark him as liberal, much less "antifamily," but they do show that his conservatism sometimes is leavened by a humane pragmatism.
Until this embarrassing campaign, Martinez also had a reputation as a pragmatic leader more interested in solving problems than in spouting ideological cliches. Before joining the Bush administration as Housing secretary, Martinez was chairman of Orange County government, a nonpartisan position in which he won praise across the political spectrum.
We don't think Martinez really believes the slurs his campaign has directed at McCollum. Instead, he is an ambitious politician who has resorted to unprincipled tactics to get elected. Unfortunately, dirty campaigns often succeed, and Martinez is betting this one will, too.
If Martinez does win Tuesday's primary, he will begin trying to move back toward the center to appeal to all Florida voters, and not just to Republican activists. But the slime from these attacks on McCollum will keep trailing Martinez like something stuck to the bottom of his shoe. The Times now recommends McCollum to Republican voters in Tuesday's primary. At this point, McCollum is a better choice for Republicans who care about producing their strongest ticket for November. He also is a better choice for Republicans who care about the soul of their party.