After fleeing Cuba in 1962 to escape an outbreak of violence in his hometown, Mel Martinez settled in Florida. He served in local government and in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet before being elected the first Cuban American to serve in the U.S. Senate. While staunchly conservative on many issues, he was a moderate voice in support of comprehensive immigration reform. “Bringing people together is my nature,” noted Martinez, the only immigrant among his Senate colleagues. “There is nothing I’d rather do in the United States Senate than work to reach a consensus, build a bridge, seek and maintain common ground.”
Martinez was born October 23, 1946, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, and was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family. In the face of the Castro regime’s increased hostility toward Catholics, Martinez’s parents sent him to the United States in 1962 through Operation Pedro Pan, a program organized by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church. Martinez was placed with a foster family in Orange County, Florida, until his parents arrived in the United States in 1966. He earned a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from Florida State University in 1969 and a law degree from that institution in 1973.
Initially affiliated with the Democratic Party, Martinez switched his allegiance to the Republican Party when President Ronald W. Reagan took office. In 1998 he won election as Orange County chairman. Martinez also took an active role in the 2000 presidential campaign as co-chairman of the Florida operation of Republican nominee George W. Bush. After the election, President Bush nominated Martinez as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 23, 2001.
In 2003 three-term incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida announced his intention to not seek re-election in 2004, setting off a scramble in both parties to recruit candidates. At the urging of President Bush and Senate Republicans, Martinez resigned his position at HUD on December 12, 2003, to run for the open seat. After prevailing in the primary with 44.9 percent of the vote, Martinez faced Betty Castor, a former state legislator, state education commissioner, and president of the University of Florida, in the general election. The candidates differed on virtually every issue, from abortion to the Iraq War. Martinez won, with 49.4 of the vote versus Castor’s 48.3 percent. “Only in America can a 15-year-old boy arrive on our shores alone, not speaking the language—with a suitcase and the hope of a brighter future—and rise to serve in the Cabinet of the President of the United States. And only in America can that same boy today stand one step away from making history as the first Cuban-American to serve in the United States Senate,” Martinez said.
Mel Martinez was sworn in as a Member of the 109th Congress (2005–2007) on January 4, 2005, and acquired seats on the committees on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Energy and Natural Resources; and Foreign Relations. He also served on the Select Committee on Aging, and later secured seats on the Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
In December 2008, Martinez announced his intention to not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010. Then, in August 2009, he announced he would resign as soon as a replacement could be appointed, citing a desire to return to Florida and his family. “This is of my own free will,” Martinez said, “only my desire to move on and get on with the rest of my life.” Martinez retired September 9, 2010, after Florida governor Charlie Crist selected his chief of staff, George S. Lemieux, to complete the term. Delivering his farewell address, Martinez stated, “Having lived through the onset of tyranny in one country and played a part in the proud democratic traditions of another, I leave here today with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity to give back to the Nation that I love—the Nation not of my birth, but the Nation of my choice.”
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