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The Mel Martinez who ran Orange County government is known for having started after-school programs, fought irresponsible real estate development and courted those with different political views. As the new junior senator from one of the nation's most politically divided states, Martinez will find that such pragmatism will serve him well in Washington.
The retiring senator he replaces, Bob Graham, was an institution in Florida politics in part because he was viewed less as an advocate for partisan ideas than as champion for Florida people. As Graham's successor, Martinez brings his own distinct connection to people who would feel disenfranchised by their government or their communities. His most compelling campaign story was in fact his own life, the oft-repeated tale about how he fled Fidel Castro's Cuba through a Catholic-sponsored program called Pedro Pan and landed in America as a 15-year-old with no family and no English. He will be the Senate's first Cuban-American.
On Wednesday, as his Democratic opponent Betty Castor conceded in a race decided by roughly 75,000 out of 7-million votes cast, Martinez reached out to her supporters. Castor herself showed a familiar dignity in defeat, saying she had little interest in the legal combat that has come to be associated with close elections. But Martinez will need more than a gesture to separate his office from the ugliness and excesses of his campaign.
Long after leaving Republicans embittered by his appeals to bigotry and his vulgar attacks on former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, Martinez used his general election campaign to tar Castor, a distinguished former legislator and education leader, as a terrorist sympathizer.
When challenged, Martinez was too eager to assign blame to his staff or to groups he said he couldn't control. As a senator, he will need an office and a staff that speaks with the measured and centrist tone he says will be his own. He can't pretend to be above it all if the people he employs are not.
"A lot of people who knew Mel are wondering if he's been taken over by Washington operatives, or if we just didn't know him in the first place," former Orange County chairman Linda Chapin told a reporter recently. "Because issues like honor and integrity were always important to the Mel that we knew."
In his victory speech, Martinez said that "bringing people together is my nature." He now has the duty as U.S. senator to prove it.
[Last modified November 4, 2004, 00:41:23]