Martinez Takes Over as Leader of RNC

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), left, the new general chairman of the Republican National Committee, has a laugh with Ken Mehlman, the man he is replacing.
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), left, the new general chairman of the Republican National Committee, has a laugh with Ken Mehlman, the man he is replacing. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who arrived in the United States as a teenage Cuban refugee, took his party's helm yesterday as general chairman of the Republican National Committee, vowing to reach out to minority voters and restore "the principles that have made us great."

Martinez was handpicked for the job by President Bush, and his ascendance was not without controversy. A small group of conservative RNC members had announced their opposition to the first-term senator because they viewed him as overly tolerant of illegal immigration.

But to many Republicans, Martinez represented a fresh face for the party, a first-generation American whose background and congenial personality could widen GOP appeal to vast new voter groups. Martinez called for greater tolerance for all groups during his inaugural address yesterday.

"To be the party of the future means that we also have to be a party that opens the door wide open so that all Americans feel welcome," he said.

Martinez said that as a Cuban American, "it was easy for me to understand that the Republican Party, the party of Ronald Reagan, was a party for us," because the two sides shared a strong opposition to the communist rule of Fidel Castro.

"I want to make sure that we take that message to the broader Hispanic community, to the African American community, and to all communities that may never have believed that Republican ideals spoke to them," Martinez said.

Martinez said he was encouraged that the 2008 Democratic field is likely to include a woman, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York; an African American, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois; and a Hispanic, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

"I do think that speaks to the evolution of American politics to be more inclusive, and I'm a part of that," said Martinez, who noted the strong showing of Michael S. Steele, the African American GOP candidate in last year's Maryland Senate race. "Both parties have taken a quantum leap," he said.

Outgoing chairman Ken Mehlman said that Martinez would "spread our message far and wide, to those like me who have been Republicans from the beginning and to the newest converts."

Martinez will share the top RNC job with Mike Duncan, a longtime party operative who will serve as chairman, overseeing day-to-day campaign, organizational and fundraising operations. It is an unusual arrangement, engineered in part by Bush, who recruited Martinez for a new general chairman post.

In an interview, Martinez said his immediate concern is lifting the gloomy mood that has gripped the party since it lost control of Congress in November. In recent weeks, the news has grown worse for Republicans, as conditions in Iraq worsen and Bush presses ahead with a controversial plan to increase U.S. troop levels.

"Its spirits are a little down," Martinez said of the GOP. "That is going to be my first order of business, to try to rekindle a little bit of fire. It's time for renewal."

The best tonic, he said, is for Republicans to turn to some of the core conservative principles that rallied the party during Reagan's day, from making government more efficient to promoting volunteerism.

"People want practical solutions to everyday problems," Martinez said. "That's part of what our party has to get back to being focused on."

Martinez was sent to the United States by his parents in 1962 as part of a Catholic Church effort to relocate 14,000 Cuban children. His parents thought the separation would be temporary. But because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, "they were unable to leave and my return was unthinkable," Martinez explained. He lived with two Florida families for a total of four years, working and attending school while he waited for his parents to escape. When they finally arrived in Florida, he told RNC members, he had saved enough to buy the family a car and had lined up a job for his father, a veterinarian.

After stints as Bush's housing secretary, chairman of Orange County, Fla., and a personal injury lawyer, Martinez was elected to the Senate in 2004. He still speaks English with a slight accent and said he believes that his Florida roots give him an important edge, given the state's ethnic diversity and political mix. "We are a microcosm of the country," he said.

Martinez is sympathetic to his state's bid to move up its presidential primary date so that it follows the New Hampshire primary. The idea is contentious within the party, because it could turn the Sunshine State into a potentially decisive battleground, but Martinez said he would not intervene when the Florida legislature considers the change in March.

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