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Repayment drives expected HUD head

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- America gave Mel Martinez a home. As the next head of the nation's housing agency it will be his job to help others with that dream.

Martinez came to the United States from Cuba in 1962 as a teen in an airlift of children known as Operation Pedro Pan, living in a foster home and working his way through school. He is expected to be named secretary of Housing and Urban Development today by President-elect George W. Bush.

Martinez, 54, has only been in office a couple of years as Orange County chairman, a position akin to mayor of the county.

Little-known outside of Florida, Martinez is thought of by those who work with him as "a regular guy" who, although a quick study, tends to delegate authority with a hands-off style.

Close friends and family members said Martinez is described as intensely motivated by a desire to repay the country that took him and his family in. And they say he understands the people the housing agency serves, because his family had little after fleeing Cuba.

After four years in a foster home, Martinez was joined by his family in Orlando after they managed to leave Cuba. His father, a veterinarian in Cuba, could only find work at a farm, before getting a job at the state Department of Agriculture.

"We lived in a little house . . . he and I shared a room," said Martinez' younger brother, Ralph, an Orlando lawyer. But the family got the things it needed.

"When we came, America just opened their arms to us," said Ralph Martinez.

He said he and his older brother "have always had a sense of community because of how gracious everyone was to us." He said that was what drove his brother to sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family and help them buy a house.

"Payback for what we received," the younger Martinez said.

Mel Martinez

Likely post: secretary of housing and urban development.

Born: Oct. 23, 1946, Cuba. Left Cuba at his parents' urging in 1962.

Education: Graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor's degree in 1969, and from Florida State University Law School in 1973.

Public service: Past chairman of the Minority/Women Business Enterprise, known as the Alliance; president of the Orlando Utilities Commission from 1994 to 1997; past chairman of the Orlando Housing Authority.

Current occupation: Chairman of the governing board of Orange County.

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