By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) on Friday named one of his closest confidants to fill out the term of resigning Sen. Mel Martinez (R), assuring that Crist will have an ally serving as a caretaker senator as he himself seeks election to the seat in 2010.
Crist named George LeMieux, a lawyer and his former chief of staff, to serve the final 17 months of Martinez's term. The selection ended several weeks of speculation about how the governor would deal with the politically tricky issue of appointing someone to a job that he also wants.
"He will serve well," Crist said Friday in announcing his choice. "I'm happy for my friend, and I'm extremely happy for my state."
LeMieux, 40, will become the fifth senator, and the first Republican, to be seated this year through appointment. The election of Barack Obama and Joseph. R. Biden Jr. as president and vice president and the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ken Salazar as the secretaries of state and interior, respectively, prompted the other appointments.
"I will seek to be a problem-solver in Washington, D.C.," LeMieux told reporters.
Martinez congratulated LeMieux in a statement, calling him "bright, capable and an accomplished administrator."
Democrats immediately raked the governor for his choice.
"Charlie Crist came as close as he could to appointing himself to this position," said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
State Democratic Party Chairman Karen Thurman accused Crist of "political cronyism" in naming someone who has been at his side politically for so long. Thurman said LeMieux "has made millions over the past several years selling access to Crist to the highest bidders among Tallahassee's special interests."
"The Democrats' desperate criticisms ring hollow, especially considering they stayed mum when Joe Biden had Ted Kaufman appointed to keep 'his' seat warm earlier this year," said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
LeMieux was Crist's campaign manager in 2006 and served as deputy attorney general of Florida when Crist was attorney general. He is regarded as one of the shrewdest political strategists in the state and, like Crist, is a moderate conservative.
Martinez announced Aug. 7 that he would resign from the Senate as soon as a replacement was selected. He had long ago announced that he would not seek reelection in 2010, but his announcement that he would not serve out his term caught Floridians and fellow senators by surprise.
Crist kicked off a public search process for a replacement, with a list of nine possible successors. But LeMieux was always regarded as the safest choice if Crist was looking for loyalty and allegiance as he carried on his campaign for the Senate.
Crist bypassed several Hispanic candidates, including former U.S. attorney Bobby Martinez and former governor Bob Martinez, in replacing the Senate's only Hispanic Republican.
Crist's rival in the 2010 GOP primary, state House Speaker Marco Rubio, is Cuban American.
Rubio is highly regarded by conservatives, and his primary challenge of the popular governor is drawing attention nationally as underscoring the rifts within the Republican Party in Florida and nationally.
Mel Martinez served in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush before winning his Senate seat, and he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. An advocate of immigration reform, he sometimes found himself at odds with conservative Republicans on issues.
Staff writers Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane contributed to this report.