Crist taps ally to fill Martinez seat

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will tap his former chief of staff to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Sen. Mel Martinez's (R) resignation, bypassing several better-known contenders.

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George LeMieux, who managed Crist's campaign for governor and served as his top aide in both the attorney general’s office and governor’s office, is well-known in Florida Republican circles. He is chairman of the Gunster law firm, with offices around Florida.

He will fill the final 16 months of Martinez's term. Martinez announced earlier this month he would step down pending the selection of a successor.

Sources told The Hill that LeMieux, who has remained close to Crist, was in Tallahassee frequently and was closely involved in the selection process.

The pick will pay dividends but could cause problems for Crist, who is running for the seat. Choosing a loyalist like LeMieux will help, as Crist will have an ally willing to step aside at the end of his term. But in bypassing other contenders, he risks angering key constituencies he will need for his own race.

Some social conservatives had rallied around state Sen. Daniel Webster (R). Hispanic Republicans thought former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez had the inside track. And other Republicans were on the side of Jim Smith (R), a former state attorney general.

Ex-Rep. Clay Shaw (R), state Rep. Jennifer Carroll (R) and former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney also applied for the position and met with Crist. The governor asked Reps. Bill Young (R) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R), former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and businesswoman Susan Story to apply for the post, but all four declined.

Meanwhile, Democrats slammed Crist for what they called cronyism.

"Today, Charlie Crist decided to play political games with the public's trust by appointing George LeMieux to the U.S. Senate. This glaring example of political cronyism is the last thing Florida needed," state Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman said in a statement.

"Floridians are sick of the Republican culture of corruption and the Tallahassee back room dealings that clearly led Crist to pick LeMieux, whose only qualification is being Charlie Crist's crony," she added.

Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer accused Democrats and those who attack LeMieux of playing politics.

"Simply because you have a relationship doesn't disqualify you when you're qualified. George LeMieux is well qualified, understands the issues well and is a dedicated public servant," he said. Anyone accusing Crist of cronyism, Greer added, "has a complete lack of knowledge of the facts or of George LeMieux's qualifications."

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Lew Oliver, who urged Crist to pick Webster, called his choice of LeMieux "a surprise," but he praised the longtime Republican operative.

“George is a brilliant guy and will do a great job,” Oliver said.

This story was updated at 11:50 a.m.