Fla. senator to resign, return to private sector
|FILE - In this July 28, 2009 file photo, Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sources say Martinez will resign.|
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida said Friday he will step down from the Senate before his term ends, adding fresh intrigue over who will fill the seat.
Martinez, the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate, told reporters at a news conference he was leaving office of his "own free will." He announced his decision in December not to seek to re-election in 2010.
"There's no impending reason, it's just my desire to move on," he said.
Martinez said the next phase of his life will be in the private sector, but he didn't have any specific plans.
"I will always be grateful to the people of Florida," he said.
Martinez's decision puts Republican Gov. Charlie Crist - who is running to replace him - in charge of filling the job in the interim. Crist said Friday that he would not appoint himself, but wouldn't discuss the issue further.
Crist will almost surely pick a Republican, meaning Martinez's resignation will have no effect on the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats control the 60 seats needed to overcome Republican filibusters. Officials predicted that Crist, who faces a Republican primary challenge and several Democratic contenders, would select a "placeholder" for the temporary assignment.
Martinez, who told his staff of his resignation Friday morning, said in a letter to friends and supporters obtained by The Associated Press that he was stepping down early for personal reasons.
"My priorities have always been my faith, my family and my country, and at this stage in my life, and after nearly 12 years of public service in Florida and Washington, it's time I return to Florida and my family," Martinez wrote.
He said his resignation will be effective when a successor is named.
Speculation swirled about whom Crist would nominate to replace the 62-year-old, and some of the talk centered around former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, who told The Associated Press on Friday that he would love to have the job.
"I'd go tomorrow," Smith, 69, said in a telephone interview from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was vacationing.
With Republicans struggling for relevance in the Democratic-controlled Congress, Martinez is the second GOP senator in recent days to announce his resignation. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said in late July she would resign this fall to challenge fellow Republican Rick Perry for governor.
Martinez's statement sounded similar to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's resignation announcement last month. Palin said she did not want to finish out her term as a lame duck who couldn't get anything done.
GOP political consultant Ana Navarro, who served as an adviser to U.S. Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said Martinez was a voice on Latin American issues, immigration and Cuba.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said she hoped Crist would appoint a Hispanic to replace Martinez, someone who was committed to comprehensive immigration reform and health care and shared his bipartisan spirit.
"Possibly new blood, maybe not somebody who's been in office but maybe someone who is from the private sector," she said.
Martinez's resignation leaves just one Hispanic in the Senate, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Martinez, 62, was elected in 2004 after serving as the U.S. secretary for housing and urban development under President George W. Bush. He served as general chairman of the Republican National Committee for 10 months, resigning in October 2007.
He was born in Cuba. At 15, he fled to America as part of a Catholic humanitarian effort called Operation Pedro Pan. Catholic charitable groups provided Martinez, who was alone and spoke virtually no English, a temporary home at two youth facilities. He then lived with two foster families, with whom he remains close. He was reunited with his family in Orlando in 1966.