Mel Martinez is more than the nation's first cuban-American Senator. Because he is one of only two Hispanics in the U.S. Senate (the other is Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado) and because he represents Florida and its pivotal electoral power, Martinez is perhaps the U.S.'s most important Hispanic lawmaker. But when he was elected last fall, Martinez was widely regarded as little more than a lapdog for President George W. Bush. Martinez upset that image this spring, when he suggested that the U.S. close its controversial prison camp at Guantánamo Bay and that the Administration has neglected Latin America.
That display of independence was welcomed by many in the Hispanic community as a sign that Martinez will stump for a broader swath of Latino concerns than just those associated with Miami's long-dominant Cubans. Despite its reputation as a conservative Cuban stronghold, Florida arguably has the U.S.'s most diverse Hispanic population, including burgeoning communities of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Central and South Americans who are often at odds with the President on issues like immigration and education. More than any other U.S. politician today, "Martinez has the opportunity to speak for all Hispanics," says Dario Moreno, a political expert at Florida International University.
Martinez, 58, whose parents smuggled him at age 15 out of Fidel Castro's Cuba, hitched his star to the Bush dynasty in 2000, when Florida Governor Jeb Bush tapped him to co-chair his brother's presidential campaign. The President made Martinez his Housing Secretary and then, to help secure Florida in 2004, pushed his Senate candidacy by, among other things, giving him a prime-time spot at the Republican National Convention. Martinez may disagree with Bush at times, but he still enjoys the kind of palanca inside the Oval Office that few Hispanic pols before him have been able to claim.