Politics & Government

Florida's political clout weakened by Martinez's retirement

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez's early retirement will leave the nation's fourth-largest state with a temp in a chamber that rewards seniority with power.

Martinez had planned to step down at the end of his term next year but said last week he'll leave office as soon as Gov. Charlie Crist appoints a replacement. Since Crist is running for the seat himself, he's expected to choose a stand-in entrusted to keep the seat warm until the November 2010 election.

In the meantime, key votes on healthcare reform, climate change and possibly immigration reform will be bearing down on Congress.

"At a time when there are going to be very significant decisions to be made, the junior senator from Florida will called on to participate in some close and controversial votes," said former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who represented Florida in Washington for nearly two decades. "The person will be treated respectfully and have one vote like everyone else, but in terms of building relationships, building knowledge, and the ability to be effective, they will be limited. Everyone knows they are leaving the first Tuesday of January in 2011."

Another former senator from Florida, Republican Connie Mack, said last week that he was "extremely disappointed" that Martinez was stepping down early.

"It would have been helpful to have had his voice and his experience on the issues that we're dealing with," Mack said.

On Friday, Crist said he would ask U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez and former Secretary of State Jim Smith to apply for the Senate seat, among others. Diaz-Balart has been in Congress since 1993. "He's the one guy who would hit the ground running and not need a map to find the Capitol," said lobbyist Ana Navarro, a Diaz-Balart supporter.

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