Martínez, Mel: 1947

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Mel Martínez: 1947: Cabinet secretary

In January of 2001 Mel R. Martínez became the first American of Cuban heritage to hold a Cabinet post. Martínez was named Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by President George W. Bush, an appointment that signaled the emergence of Florida's strongly Republican Cuban-American community as a significant political force. Martínez, a well-liked county executive from Florida, was considered one of the wisest choices among the Bush Administration cabinet nominees. "In one fell swoop," observed Los Angeles Times writer Geraldine Baum, "Bush effectively paid a debt to Cuban Americans who supported him during the postelection debacle in Florida, was able to elevate a Latino with a dramatic immigrant story and succeeded in promoting someone whoalthough he lacks experience in the public housing arenahas been in the thick of governing the fastest-growing community in the country."

Cuban Refugee

Melquiades Martínez was born in 1947 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. The son of a veterinarian, he was twelve when a 1959 coup brought Communist guerrilla leader Fidel Castro to power on the island. The new government was not supported by all, and one teen in Sagua la Grande was taken before a firing squad after being accused of anti-government activities. Catholic schools were closed, and the atmosphere grew tense as Martínez entered his teens. He once played in a basketball game wearing a religious symbol around his neck, and was taunted for it. "The words 'Kill him, he is a Catholic' had a chilling ring for my desperate and frightened parents," Martínez told a Senate Judiciary committee many years later, according to St. Petersburg Times writer Curtis Krueger.

Uneasy with a Communist governmentLatin America's only one for a timeand firm Soviet ally so close, the United States government attempted to subvert Cuban communism in several ways. One of them was helping Catholic service groups launch "Operation Pedro Pan," an airlift for Cuban youth who were then resettled with Florida families. Martínez, with the date of his compulsory service in the Cuban military nearing, became one of 14,000 to participate in Operation Pedro Pan. He was fifteen and spoke only Spanish when he arrived at a refugee center on Matecumbe Key in the Florida Keys. He moved in with an Orlando family, Walter and Eileen Young, and his brother Rafael soon followed. "We looked at ourselves many times through those years and said: 'We may never see our parents again,'" Rafael Martínez recalled in the St. Petersburg Times interview.

At a Glance . . .

Born Melquiades Rafael Martínez, October 23, 1946, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba; emigrated to United States, 1962; naturalized citizen, 1971; son of Melquiades C. (a veterinarian) and Gladys V. (Ruiz) Martínez.; m. Kathryn Tindal, June 13, 1970; children: Lauren Elizabeth, John Melquiades, Andrew Tindal. Education: Florida State University, B.A., 1969, J.D., 1973. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Republican.

Career: Began career as attorney in private practice, Florida, 1973; partner in Martínez, Dalton, Dellecker and Wilson, Orlando, FL until 1985; chair, Orlando Housing Authority, 1984-86; Martínez, Dalton, Dellecker, Wilson and King, partner and civil trial attorney, 1985-98; president, Orlando Utilities Commission, 1994-97; chair, Orange County, FL, 1998-01; named secretary for Housing and Urban Development, 2001, by President George W. Bush. Has also served on the board of directors for Catholic Social Services of Orlando, 1978-86; founder and chair of Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Committee, Orlando, 1981-82; chair of board of commissioners, Orlando Housing Authority, 1983-86; commissioner for Orlando Utilities Commission, 1992-94.

Memberships: Bar of the state of Florida (board of governors, young lawyers section, 1980-81); Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers (director, 1981-85, treasurer, 1986-87, president, 1988-89), Ninth Judicial Circuit (judicial nomination commission, 1986).

Addresses: Home Orlando, FL. Office Department of Housing and Urban Development, Room 10000, 451 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20410.

The Martínez sons were thrilled to greet their parents and sister when they arrived in Florida in 1966. By then Martínez had worked and saved $400 to give to his father so the family might buy a car, and had also lined up a job for him in a local dairy. Meanwhile, Martínez was also continuing with his own plans. He finished high school at a local Roman Catholic school with an excellent command of the English language, and enrolled at Florida State University. After graduating in 1969, he entered law school at the same institution. He earned his J.D. and passed the Florida bar in 1973, and began a career as a successful personal-injury lawyer. His first foray into politics came when a law partner was elected mayor of Orlando, and named him to chair the Orlando Housing Authority.

Martínez served in that post for two years in the mid-1980s, and continued to practice law in Orlando. In 1994 he was appointed head of the city's Utilities Commission, and decided to make a bid for the lieutenant governorship in Florida's primary race. He lost, but the experience introduced him to another Florida Republican, Jeb Bush, the son of former President George Bush. Martínez ran once again for office in 1998, and won the top executive post in Orange County, home to Orlando, its booming local economy, Walt Disney World, and a population of 820,000. Because of unchecked growth in recent years, however, the area was beset by traffic congestion and overcrowded schools. One of Martínez's first decisions was to temporarily ban new construction of homes in areas where school districts were being forced to hold classes in trailers. The decision angered housing developers in the region, but Martínez was adamant.

By making budget cuts, Martínez was able to reduce some of the property taxes in Orange County, and set a positive example as a leader when he fired a fire department chief who refused to promote women and minorities. He also became involved in the 1999 media storm over Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy who was rescued after fleeing Cuba with his mother on a raft. She died, but the family in Florida offered to take him in; his father in Cuba, however, requested his return. Martínez backed the Florida relatives, and even took Elian on a well-publicized visit to Walt Disney World.

Helped Bush Win Florida

Martínez was also attracting attention in national Republican circles. When the brother of Governor Jeb Bush became the GOP frontrunner in the 2000 presidential race, Martínez was named as co-chair of the state campaign to elect Texas governor George W. Bush to the White House. Martínez also became a member of Florida's Electoral College, a 25-member panel that played a key role in the contested race. Democratic candidate Al Gore was initially declared the winner of the Florida electoral votes, but the media then retracted the projection. As a case for disputed ballots arose, several Florida counties began a manual recount, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision put an end to the recount, and Bush was declared the winner in December of 2000.

Martínez became one of Bush's first cabinet appointees a week later. At a press conference, the president-elect mistakenly referred to Martínez as his pick to head the department of "housing and human development," but did praise the Cuban American as the embodiment of the American dream. "He's got a wonderful story," Bush stated at that press conference, according to a report by New York Times journalist Christopher Marquis. "He was a refugee, as a young boy, from Cuba. He understands American values; he's grown to appreciate them." Martínez was equally pleased to find himself before reporters as a Cabinet nominee. "Today, for me, is a fulfillment of the promise of America," Martínez told reporters, according to Marquis, "the promise that regardless of where you come from, what language you speak, the color of your skin or your economic circumstances, if you share the dream of a brighter tomorrow, and you're willing to pursue it with respect for others and have an abiding faith in God, all things are possible."

Martínez was confirmed as HUD secretary on January 23, 2001 by a Senate vote of 100-0. The Florida Republican Party chair, Al Cardenas, told Baum in the Los Angeles Times that Martínez was a solid pick for the job, and the ease of his confirmation hearings were no surprise. "He has been managing a place with an exploding population and overseeing all the infrastructure problems that createsin housing, in transportation, in education," said Cardenas.

Martínez took over a department with a $30 billion budget and 9,100 employees. HUD's function is to ensure that all Americans have equal access to housing. It provides loans for first-time home buyers, block grants for troubled neighborhoods, a rent voucher program for low-income families, and works to eradicate abandoned and dilapidated housing. It also maintains public housing complexes across the country and helps the elderly and disabled keep and maintain their homes. Martínez stressed in an interview with Washington Post writer Ellen Nakashima that he was not about to undertake any major overhaul. "One thing I don't want to do is reinvent HUD," he told the newspaper. "There's been too much of that over the last several years. We need some stability. I want to find those things that are working, encourage them; find those things that need improvement and try to change those around."

Pledged to Fulfill HUD Aims

One goal Martínez hoped to achieve during his tenure was to improve minority home-ownership statistics. When he became HUD Secretary, figures showed that 72 percent of white households in United States owned their own home, compared with figures in the mid-40s range for blacks and Hispanics. "I'm not sure we can improve a whole lot on that 72 percent, but in that 45 to 46 percent, we darn sure can do better," Martínez told Nakashima in the Washington Post interview. In the spring of 2001 he and Attorney General John Ashcroft pledged to ensure that the landmark Fair Housing Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 as part of the Civil Rights Act of same year, was being upheld. At a news event, they reminded builders of the need to comply with regulations specified by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and sounded a warning note to mortgage brokers who charge excessive fees to first-time, low income home buyers. The Bush Administration's two top officials in this realm stated that discrimination in any form would not be tolerated. Martínez said his own experience trying to settle Cuban refugees in the early 1980s in the Orlando area awakened him to discriminatory practices. At the time, he used his law background to help the refugees overcome the obstacles, and "fortunately we were able to get them a decent place to live," a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Martínez as saying that day. "But I wonder how many powerless people are out there who may not have an advocate. That is who we need to serve."

Martínez also surprised some when he spoke at the annual convention of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America during his first year as HUD Secretary. He told his audience that consumers needed more protection regarding mortgage-industry fees, and urged the group to comply. "Too many home buyers are taken advantage of at closing," Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News writer John Handley quoted Martínez as saying. "Too many American families sit down at the settlement table and discover unexpected fees that can add thousands of dollars to the cost of their loan." Martínez said that some of the mortgage paperwork should include an exact description of the mortgage broker's services, and how much the broker will earn on the deal. "When you are committing to the biggest financial expenditure of your life, you should know all the costs up front," he declared.

In early 2002 Martínez was instrumental in securing a $700 million grant for New York State from HUD's Community Development Block Grant program. The money was given to help in the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, devastated by the attacks on the World Trade Center. "It's the largest single grant in the history of our department," Martínez told New York Times writer Robert Pear. "We worked hard to get it out as quick as we could. The focus is on economic development, with a particular emphasis on small business." Around the same time, the HUD Secretary also spoke before Budget Committee senators regarding the Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2003 budget. It included an increase for HUD's Section 8 program that would yield 34,000 new Section 8 rental-assistance vouchers, but there were an estimated one million families on a waiting list for them. The proposed budget would also earmark $150 million in federal funds for a program to help first-time low-income home buyers.

Martínez and his wife Kitty, whom he met in college, have three children and have become foster parents to Cuban and Vietnamese refugee children. His brother Rafael is also an attorney. Martínez believes he brings a unique perspective to HUD, one of the cabinet departments created during the mid-1960s by a civil-rights-minded political leadership. "I will try to be someone who shows a very caring heart, for people that are hurting, for people who may be homeless or in a less than desirable housing situation," he told the Washington Post 's Nakashima. "I myself in my own life experienced what it's like not to have a lot, not to be in a position where you couldn't do without the help of others."


Bond Buyer, December 14, 2001, p. 5; January 23, 2002, p. 5; February 14, 2002, p. 5.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, October 28, 2001.

Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2000, p. A32.

Mortgage Banking, February 2001, p. 13.

Nation's Cities Weekly, March 12, 2001, p. 8.

New York Times, December 21, 2000; February 3, 2002, p. 32.

Orlando Business Journal, May 18, 2001, p. 1; October 5, 2001, p. 3.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, 2001, p. A11.

St. Petersburg Times, January 17, 2001, p. 1A.

U.S. Newswire, September 17, 2001.

Washington Post, February 21, 2001, p. A21.

Carol Brennan

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Martínez, Mel: 1947

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