Martinez says 'no impending reason' for resignation

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) announced his resignation Friday at a press conference in Florida, telling supporters that it was time to return to his family.

Martinez said his resignation would be effective as soon as a successor takes office to fill the remainder of his term, which expires in January 2011.

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“My priorities have always been my faith, my family and my country, and at this stage in my life and after nearly 12 years of public service in Florida and in Washington, it is time to return to Florida and my family,” Martinez told reporters while his wife, Kitty, stood beside him.

Martinez said there was “no impending reason” for his sudden resignation other than his “desire to move on and get on with the rest of my life.” He said he did not have any health problems.

Martinez said he would enter the private sector after spending a two-month break with his family, a “60-day gap when you’re not going to see me do much of anything.”

Martinez said he had “no specific plans” for his future and that he will continue to have a role, albeit part-time, in Republican politics.

“I look forward to being an active part of a resurgent Republican Party,” he said.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who is running for Martinez’s seat, is empowered under Florida law to name a successor. He could appoint himself to the post but GOP strategists predicted he would not do so and risk a backlash from voters. (The state’s only restriction is that Crist cannot serve as governor and senator simultaneously.)

Martinez denied rumors earlier this year that he would step down before the end of his term. When asked by The Hill in May, he said: “This is crazy s--t. I have nothing to say. This comes up every few weeks.”

Friday’s surprise resignation prompted head-scratching among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

One GOP aide speculated that Martinez, the Senate’s only Hispanic Republican, resigned because of differences with his party over immigration.

Martinez pushed unsuccessfully for immigration reform that would have created a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal residents. But the legislation failed in the face of staunch opposition from the party’s base.

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One of his last acts as a senator was to vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice of the Supreme Court. Only eight other Republicans voted for her.

Martinez opened his press conference by making reference to his own immigrant background. He closed it by answering two questions in Spanish.

Crist is expected to appoint a caretaker to hold the seat until next year’s election. The governor raised more than $4.3 million in his first seven weeks as a candidate. He is facing a primary race against former Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio. Rubio raised only $340,000 in the second quarter of 2009.

“My initial reaction that this was set up for Crist to appoint himself,” said Jason Roe, a political consultant who served as chief of staff to former Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). “But there’s a high potential of backlash if that is the case.

“If I were Charlie Crist right now and trying to decide how to react to this, I would put in a placeholder senator and continue to campaign to be elected legitimately.”

Other Republicans expressed similar sentiments.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) is considered the early frontrunner for Martinez’s seat. He faces a potential challenge from Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who has formed an exploratory committee.