Karl Rove's Florida Frankenstein

Did Team Bush turn once-moderate GOP Senate candidate Mel Martinez into a gay-bashing, reactionary ogre?

Published October 8, 2004 7:42PM (EDT)

Here is the campaign narrative that Mel Martinez had once hoped to present to the voters of Florida: Cuban immigrant, sent to America by his parents as a little boy to escape tyranny, grows up to become a successful trial lawyer, mayor of Orlando and a member of the president's Cabinet. Known to all as a "really nice guy," he caps his American dream with a run for governor.

Now here is the narrative that White House political chief Karl Rove, in pursuit of every possible advantage for President Bush in the crucial swing state of Florida, has foisted on Martinez: Cuban immigrant becomes mayor of Orlando (note to Mel: Drop the "trial lawyer" part) and a member of the president's Cabinet. Known for appealing "to the worst in people" with a vicious anti-gay campaign, he caps his American dream with a run -- for U.S. senator.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Melquiades Martinez's surprising political transformation from sunny moderate to snarling right-winger is testament to the self-effacing loyalty expected of presidential teammates in pursuit of the ultimate goal: ensuring that George W. Bush prevails on Nov. 2.

In Florida, a big and diverse state, successful statewide candidates cannot afford to veer far from the middle. But Martinez, who is reluctantly running for the Senate at the behest of the White House, presided over a GOP primary campaign so thuggish that even the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, cried foul. Florida's largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, withdrew its endorsement of Martinez for the low-blow tactics he used to vanquish his primary opponent, former Rep. Bill McCollum, a House prosecutor in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton.

Polls now indicate a tossup race between Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor, a former president of the University of South Florida in Tampa, for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat. Castor is running as the moderate heir to the popular Graham, stressing her support for a strong defense, education and lower prescription drug costs. Martinez, on the other hand, has defied Florida's centrist tradition by continuing to list to the right. His campaign sent an e-mail news release recently that called the federal law enforcement agents who removed shipwrecked Elián Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives for return to his father in Cuba "armed thugs." And he has attacked Castor for failing in the mid-1990s to fire a tenured USF computer science professor who was suspected of (and later indicted for) helping lead a Palestinian terrorist group.

The tactics -- which Martinez has plaintively blamed on his staff -- have little to do with getting the former Bush HUD secretary elected to the Senate. Rather, they appear aimed at spurring turnout for President Bush among key Hispanic blocs in Orlando and Miami and depressing it among Democratic-leaning Jewish voters in a state that vaulted Bush to the White House in 2000 by a margin of 537 votes when the Supreme Court stopped the counting.

And what if Martinez's political reputation and future get sacrificed in the process? Well, it's all for a higher cause -- or, at least, that is what Rove must undoubtedly be hoping Martinez will understand.

Martinez came to the United States in 1962, at age 15, under the Roman Catholic Church's "Pedro Pan" relocation program for Cuban children. It would be four years before his parents were able to follow; a photo on the Martinez campaign Web site shows his joyful parents rushing off an airplane and into Martinez's arms.

Martinez has played heavily on the theme of an immigrant who flees a dictatorship for opportunity in the United States. He spoke no English when he arrived, but by 1973 he had earned a law degree from Florida State University and married his American-born wife, Kitty. One of his television ads, titled "Dreams," tells voters: "He escaped Communism as a young boy and fell in love with America." Martinez repeated his inspirational tale in a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

Yet from there his official campaign narrative skips quickly over his long career as a tort lawyer. It does not mention that he was president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers in the late 1980s, or that he once fought Florida doctors who tried to limit the amount of pain and suffering damages awarded in malpractice cases. There is no discussion of his past campaign donations to Democrats such as Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina. Although Martinez would cap damages awarded in medical malpractice cases at $500,000, double what McCollum, President Bush and most other Republicans support, he backs the rest of the Republican Party's tort reform agenda.

This turnabout strikes his former lawyer colleagues as opportunistic. "Mel Martinez is a good person. The Mel I know is someone you cannot dislike," said John Morgan, a prominent plaintiff's lawyer in Orlando who has been friends with Martinez for years. "But Mel fought against tort reform his whole life. Either he didn't believe what he was talking about then, or he doesn't believe what he's talking about now. And I don't believe Mel believes what he's saying now."

In 1998, Martinez became the first popularly elected Republican chairman of Orange County (and de facto mayor of Orlando), shrewdly reaching out to liberal county commissioners and winning a reputation for bipartisanship. He served as Florida co-chairman of the Bob Dole for President campaign in 1996 and co-chairman of the Bush for President campaign in 2000. In 2001, Bush rewarded Martinez by nominating him to be secretary of HUD. Martinez served three years in the job and, by all accounts, enjoyed it greatly. He had been open about his plans to run for governor in 2006 when term limits would force Jeb Bush to step down.

Those plans were upended in 2003 when, according to numerous news reports at the time, Rove began twisting Martinez's arm to get him to run for the Senate. Rep. Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who helped halt the 2000 recount, was thinking of running as well. But the White House was loath to have a symbol of the bitter 2000 election on the ballot with Bush, a problem that was solved by pushing forward Martinez to block Harris.

At the same time, Rove was said to be worried that the other Republicans running for Senate -- most prominently McCollum -- were so conservative that their presence on the ballot with Bush would likewise damage the president's reelection chances in the moderate swing state. Again, having the well-spoken and uncontroversial Martinez as the nominee would solve that problem.

But for Rove, the biggest advantage in prematurely shoving Martinez onto Florida's statewide political stage was his Hispanic surname. Latinos are estimated to make up 10 percent of the electorate in Florida.

Not only would Martinez energize the heavily Republican Cuban-American vote concentrated in Miami, the White House undoubtedly calculated, he would also spur turnout among the ethnic Puerto Ricans clustered around Martinez's Orlando-area base. The rise in the Puerto Rican population explains why registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans in Orange and Osceola counties. But the one way to persuade ethnic Puerto Ricans to vote Republican, past elections showed, was to put a Republican with a Hispanic name or strong Hispanic ties on the ballot. A majority of Orlando-area Puerto Rican-Americans voted for Al Gore for president in 2000, for example; but in 2002, they supported the reelection of Gov. Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker whose wife, Columba, is a native of Mexico.

A Castor spokesman was succinct when asked why he thought national Republicans were so intent on Martinez becoming the Senate nominee. "The Hispanic vote," Castor aide Dan McLaughlin said.

Despite all the obvious advantages his Senate candidacy would give to Bush, Martinez was hesitant to sacrifice his own dream of the governor's mansion in Tallahassee. He wavered for months, perhaps wary as well of the tensions that Rove's scheme appeared to be sparking between the president and his brother, who was widely rumored to be angry about Republican Party central planners invading his political turf. As a sign of Jeb's pique, the governor last year praised the "courage" of those Republican Senate hopefuls -- including McCollum and the governor's friend, state Sen. Dan Webster -- for persevering despite the White House's clear preference for Martinez.

The rumors of his anger were so persistent that Jeb Bush eventually had to acknowledge publicly that he'd discussed the matter with Rove. Yet, the governor dutifully insisted, Rove assured him that neither he nor the president would play favorites in Florida.

"When it came out [that Rove was urging Martinez to run], I wanted to get guidance and just an understanding of what Karl's view of this was," Jeb Bush told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003. "I had several conversations with him, and with my brother when he came down here. They're not endorsing him [Martinez]. They're not picking him. He's not the handpicked candidate." Of course, no one really believed this.

Martinez filed papers for his candidacy in January, running television ads that featured President Bush's endorsement. But early polls showed McCollum with a comfortable lead. And then one of the most right-wing Republicans in Florida found himself under attack for -- incredibly -- displaying insufficient conservative fervor.

In a classic Rovian move, Martinez branded McCollum "anti-family" for supporting stem cell medical research. Although the GOP's dominant anti-abortion wing will brook no dissent on research that involves the destruction of human embryos, in truth the GOP is split on the issue. Even born-again anti-abortion Christians like Florida's popular former senator, Connie Mack, McCollum's friend and political patron, support stem cell research. Mack has championed the research as a former cancer survivor.

McCollum also ran a tough campaign, running ads calling Martinez a "liberal trial lawyer." But Martinez's endorsement from Bush and superior fundraising were paying off. As the Aug. 31 primary neared, polls showed the White House favorite pulling ahead.

Apparently unwilling to leave any doubt about the outcome, however, the Martinez camp dropped a political bomb: McCollum's support in Congress for a bipartisan hate crimes law that strengthened protections for gays, women and minorities. For this noble effort, McCollum was savaged in a Martinez ad as catering to the "radical homosexual lobby." The campaign mailed fliers to voters in the Bible Belt of the Florida panhandle that labeled McCollum "the new darling of the homosexual extremists." The attacks were so mean that Jeb Bush called on Martinez to stop.

The ambush left McCollum stunned. In a televised debate, he waved a copy of the mailing and challenged Martinez to explain himself. McCollum "was just livid" during the debate, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at Tampa's USF. "He could barely talk, he was so angry. And I think he had a right to be. It was below-the-belt stuff that was really not necessary."

This classic Republican smear tactic was nothing like the generally polite Senate campaigns waged in the past by Mack, Graham and Mack's Democratic successor, Sen. Bill Nelson. Before Martinez, the most memorable mud flung in a recent Florida Senate campaign was Mack's comparatively mild slogan in 1988 against Democratic Rep. Buddy MacKay: "Hey, Buddy, you're liberal!"

Making matters worse, Martinez had allowed a leader of one of Washington's most notorious anti-gay groups, the Traditional Values Coalition, to ridicule McCollum in a conference call with reporters. Mack was furious. He sent a letter to Florida Republicans accusing Martinez of engaging in "political hate speech" that would "only hurt our party and doom us in November." Mack did not return phone calls from Salon seeking comment.

Saying in his letter he was "embarrassed for Mel and by Mel," Mack added: "Mel Martinez has forfeited his ability to attract mainstream Democrats and independents in November. Decent people of all political persuasions will reject the ugliness of the Martinez attack."

Martinez was said to be "personally anguished" by the negative campaign tactics, according to MacManus, who said she heard this description of the candidate from GOP activists at the Republican Convention in New York. Martinez did not improve his position when he later pleaded that he "wouldn't be in favor of that kind of rhetoric" -- editorial writers slammed him as either dishonest or not in control of his own campaign.

MacManus added: "I've heard many people say that wasn't Mel. But the damage is done. And now he's got some pretty important Florida Republicans who are not going to forgive or forget."

The day before the Aug. 31 primary, the St. Petersburg Times took what it called the "almost unprecedented step" of withdrawing its endorsement of Martinez for the Republican nomination. "The Times is not willing to be associated with bigotry," its editorial said. The paper's liberal editorial board acknowledged that it agreed with McCollum "on very few issues" but called the 10-term former House member "a better choice for Republicans who care about the soul of their party."

The moral corruption of the gay-bashing stunt was underscored by extensive coverage in the Washington Blade, a gay weekly in the capital, of two top advisors to Martinez who the newspaper says are homosexual. Kirk Fordham, Martinez's finance director, and former Christian Coalition of Florida head John Dowless, have not denied the reports of their sexual orientation. In July, Dowless declined to discuss the matter with the Blade, telling reporter Mubarak Dahir, "I'm just not going to address that with you." But Dahir reported that an unidentified Blade editor had met Dowless at a gay bar in Orlando in April.

Fordham is a former top aide to Florida Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican who had planned to run for Graham's Senate seat until he was forced last year to respond to rumors that he is gay. Foley publicly denounced the talk as having been spread by Democratic opponents, but in a conference call with reporters, he declined to discuss his sexual orientation, saying such matters are private. Foley later dropped out of the race, citing his father's battle with cancer.

John Aravosis and Michael Rogers, gay activists in Washington who have been conducting a controversial "outing" campaign of gays who work for anti-gay members of Congress, have called on Fordham for months to abandon Martinez over his support for a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage. Fordham has not responded publicly to the challenge, while Foley, ever the loyal foot soldier, threw his support to Martinez, saying the former HUD secretary would fight for the "compassionate conservative agenda of President Bush."

Asked to respond to the charges that Martinez is a hypocrite for running a homosexual-bashing campaign when two of his aides are gay, spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe said only: "We don't comment on staff's private lives."

Martinez won the winner-take-all Florida primary with 45 percent of the vote. McCollum placed second with 31 percent, with the rest of the vote split among six other candidates. "Sleaze Pays Off for Martinez," a Tampa Tribune editorial declared.

After stewing for nearly two weeks, McCollum finally gave his grudging endorsement to Martinez, issuing a brutal statement saying that he remained "deeply disturbed" by tactics that had "appealed to the worst in people." McCollum added: "I just feel what happened at the end of the campaign was wrong." He explained that his endorsement was "for the good of the president and the country." Martinez spokeswoman Coxe called the uproar over the anti-gay advertising a "media creation" and said, "We're very united as a party." She pointed out that McCollum is hosting a fundraising event for Martinez. Yet McCollum declined to amplify the "unity" message by ignoring two requests from Salon for comment.

Martinez's old lawyer friend Morgan said the campaign had the feel of being directed by outsiders. "That type of smear was not something that I would have expected from the Mel Martinez that I know. To me, those are strings that are being pulled far, far away from Florida," Morgan told me by telephone.

After the nasty primary, Martinez was expected to pivot quickly to the center for the general election. But he is continuing to use the same old hardball tactics from the tattered playbook of the Republican Party in Washington. The strategy appears aimed more at energizing the GOP conservative base -- who will certainly also vote for President Bush -- than at winning over independent voters, who might split their tickets with a vote for Kerry.

Last month, for example, in response to Castor television ads emphasizing her support for veterans, Martinez issued news releases attacking the Democrat for accepting campaign donations from the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group. Calling the council a "left-wing, anti-military group," Martinez accused Castor of being weak on defense. It was an almost word-for-word reprise of attacks Republicans used against Democratic Senate candidates who were supported by the council in 2002.

Floridians have begun to notice that Martinez's strings are being pulled from Washington. Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell recently slammed Martinez for trying to wriggle out of a debate this month with Castor by complaining that "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert was an inappropriate choice as moderator because he did not hail from Florida. Castor's camp suspected that Martinez was really more worried about being pinned to the wall by Russert's tough questions.

The Sentinel's Maxwell, meanwhile, questioned Martinez's sudden emphasis on Florida when much of his staff, despite having Florida ties, are products of the national GOP apparatus in Washington. The columnist singled out the campaign's communications director, Coxe, as "just one out-of-town cog in a Washington campaign that Martinez appears to have little control over." Coxe, whose last campaign job was in Tennessee, countered that she was born in Tampa and worked on Capitol Hill for former Sen. Mack. She said that Martinez is "in complete control of this campaign."

Yet the candidate continues to blame staff for his gaffes, including the news release that called federal agents "armed thugs." Law enforcement groups were outraged, and Martinez found himself again blaming staff. Questioned by CNN's Judy Woodruff on Sept. 28 about the phrase, Martinez said, "No, no. I never said that. And it was something that was put out by someone in the office and immediately withdrawn, as we saw what had happened."

The campaign manager, Scott Barnhard, has been reassigned to oversee paid media and no longer has an office at campaign headquarters; Coxe said his move is unrelated to the Elián controversy. She said a junior staffer was responsible for the "armed thugs" comment. Asked if anyone has been fired for the string of missteps, Coxe said: "Structural changes were made to ensure this campaign is run in a fashion Mel can be proud of. I'm not going to comment any further."

Martinez, meanwhile, has campaigned heavily on his experience as HUD secretary, boasting that his policies have helped millions of African-Americans and Hispanics purchase homes. Yet the St. Petersburg Times reported that Martinez last year blocked release of a potentially embarrassing HUD study assessing whether the nation's largest mortgage lenders have discriminated against minorities. The still secret, taxpayer-funded study focuses on whether credit-scoring systems used by the quasi-governmental Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have resulted in lower credit ratings -- and higher hurdles -- for minorities trying to buy homes. One of Fannie Mae's lobbyists at the time Martinez squelched the report was former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, a top Martinez supporter. Martinez told the Times that he had never talked to Cardenas about the study. The candidate said he shelved the report because it was "skewed and would have resulted in a real disruption of the marketplace."

Castor, meanwhile, has been aggressively questioning Martinez's character in her own series of negative television ads. Martinez responded by upping the ante. Last week, he began attacking Castor for her failure to fire professor Sami Al-Arian from USF in the mid- and late 1990s while he was under federal investigation for terrorist ties. Al-Arian goes to trial in January on charges he was a founder and top leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the suicide-bombing group dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Martinez is airing a TV ad in the heavily Jewish areas of southern Florida's Atlantic coast that declares: "Islamic Jihad at USF under Betty Castor."

The ads are not without risk for President Bush, whose 2000 campaign heavily courted Al-Arian and other politically active Muslims who have since been indicted or come under investigation for alleged terrorist activities. Bush posed for a picture with Al-Arian that has appeared widely in Florida newspapers and other publications, such as Newsweek. And Al-Arian worked hard to round up Muslim votes for Bush in Florida in 2000, bragging publicly that his efforts had made the difference in the close race. And so again, this criticism of Castor appears designed to suppress turnout among Florida's Democratic-leaning Jewish voters.

Castor has responded that she did all she could against Al-Arian in the absence of an indictment, suspending him for two years with pay. Yet one of Castor's critics, Bill West, the former Immigration and Naturalization agent who worked the Al-Arian case, appears in the Martinez television ad against Castor. West said Castor bowed to political correctness in coddling Al-Arian. But the Castor campaign pointed out that the former federal agent is a consultant to the Investigative Project in Washington, a research group headed by controversial anti-terrorism "expert" Steven Emerson, whose critics accuse him of trampling the civil liberties of Muslim-Americans. (In 2002, the Investigative Project received $600,000 in funding from the conservative Smith Richardson Foundation, which has also heavily supported the American Enterprise Institute think tank, home to Bush administration stalwarts like vice presidential spouse Lynne Cheney and Defense Department advisor Richard Perle, an architect of the Iraq war.)

Castor spokesman McLaughlin calls the Martinez campaign "the ugly mutated life form of what Lee Atwater started and which today's Republican Party, with the likes of Karl Rove, are continuing. They make stuff up after their polling identifies divisive or polarizing issues that they can use to drive home with ethnic groups or other constituencies."

The closeness of the Florida Senate race was reaffirmed in a survey conducted Oct. 1-2 by Insider Advantage for Creators Syndicate. It put Martinez at 40 percent, Castor at 39 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. But the most intriguing data in that poll was the large bloc of undecided voters: 21 percent. In their hands lies the fate of both the Florida Senate hopefuls and, possibly, George W. Bush and John Kerry as well.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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