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Martinez awaits mobile office

The trailer across from the Capitol will suffice for a few months for U.S. Sen.-elect Mel Martinez.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published December 28, 2004

WASHINGTON - Like many of his constituents back in sunny Florida, U.S. Sen.-elect Mel Martinez and his staff will spend the winter in a mobile home, modest digs in a great location.

Having won the November election, Martinez, a Republican from Orlando, has spent December setting up his Senate office, hiring staff and learning the arcane rules of the Senate before his swearing-in next month.

His Senate transition office opened in a windowless room in the basement of the Dirksen building, off a battered tile hallway by a sign telling Senate job applicants where to take their resumes.

His skeleton staff shares a copier and conference room with other new senators. After Martinez takes the oath Jan. 4, he will move next door, into a trailer in the courtyard of the Russell building - modest accommodations for a former U.S. Cabinet secretary representing the nation's fourth most populous state.

But like thousands of snowbirds who descend on cramped trailer parks across Florida each winter, it's the location, not the quarters, that counts: It will be just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Capitol.

His office will remain there until February or March, when he's assigned a permanent space in one of the Senate buildings. Meanwhile, Martinez has been interviewing candidates for his Florida director, who will be based at his main office in Orlando. He also plans to open offices in Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Pensacola.

His total staff in Washington and Florida will number about 50.

"It's like building a corporation from the ground up," said John Little, his new chief of staff. "If you had a product ... and somebody fronted you the money, this is what it's like."

While retiring Sen. Bob Graham officially holds the seat until next month, Martinez already is fielding calls from constituents.

A man from Lake City asked Martinez to fly a flag from the Capitol in honor of the 60th anniversary of his father's death in World War II. Two newly minted Eagle Scouts from Stuart and Melrose sought congratulations letters. Another Floridian wrote to ask Martinez to send a letter of congratulations in honor of her 50th wedding anniversary.

Martinez will comply with each of those requests.

Though Martinez served as President Bush's housing secretary for three years before returning to Orlando to run for the Senate, when determining seniority, former House members get priority over former Cabinet secretaries. So of the nine new senators, Martinez ranks above only two, which puts him 98th in seniority among the 100 members.

But Florida is an important state politically, and Martinez has strong ties to the White House. Last week, he was appointed to four committees that often handle issues affecting Florida: banking, energy, aging and foreign relations.

In January, he is scheduled to accompany a congressional fact-finding trip to Israel. Martinez, the nation's first Cuban-American senator, said he was thrilled to win the foreign relations spot.

"Having come from the tyranny and dictatorship of Castro's Cuba as a child, I hold nothing more dear than the American principles of freedom, democracy and human rights," he said in a statement. "I look forward to working with (the committee) to both further America's values and ideals around the world and ensure the safety of all Americans at home."

He has hired a core staff of Capitol Hill veterans:

-- Little, 32, the chief of staff, who spent more than seven years with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., most recently as his legislative director. Little will run the daily affairs of the office and oversee the staff.

-- Tripp Baird, 35, legislative director. Baird was director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

-- Kerry Fennelly Fleehery, 33, communications director, who was press secretary for the Senate Budget Committee. A native of Stuart, Fleehery began her Capitol Hill career on the communications staff of former Florida Sen. Connie Mack. She also has worked for an electronics industry association and as a Washington lobbyist.

-- Kate Bush, 58, administrative director. She was executive secretary to Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and previously worked for the Senate sergeant at arms.

Though most senators move to Washington, Martinez has rented a furnished apartment in a home on Capitol Hill and will spend weekends in Orlando with his wife, Kitty, and their school-aged son, Andrew. Not only will it help to spend more time in Florida, but the Martinezes didn't want to force Andrew to switch schools again, Little said. Martinez sold his home in McLean, Va., when he left the Cabinet.

[Last modified December 28, 2004, 00:22:06]

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