Martinez next senator after Castor concedes

MIAMI — Democrat Betty Castor conceded the Florida Senate race to Republican Mel Martinez yesterday morning after a dispute over absentee ballots delayed the outcome of the race for half a day.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Martinez beat Castor 49.4 percent to 48.3 percent, a margin of about 75,000 votes. Third-party candidate Dennis Bradley received 2.3 percent.

The candidates were vying to replace retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D).

Martinez declared victory from his Orlando campaign headquarters at 1 a.m. yesterday.
file photo
Mel Martinez

“I believe the people of Florida have spoken, and I am humbled to be your next United States senator,” he said.

Yet Castor was slow to concede. In a scene reminiscent of the 2000 recount, she came to the podium at her Tampa headquarters 15 minutes after Martinez’s appearance and called for a count of thousands of outstanding absentee ballots.

“I believe it is premature for anyone to declare victory in this race until all the votes are counted,” she said.

By 10:30 a.m., however, Castor had called Martinez to concede. At a press conference an hour later, she said that ‘’even if every vote is counted, we think it would be very difficult to make up the difference.”

Martinez, 58, will become the first Cuban-American senator. Along with Sen.-elect Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), he will be one of two Hispanic senators in the 109th Congress.

Martinez ran for the Senate at the behest of the White House, which had hoped that his story of escape from communist Cuba would energize Florida’s large Republican-leaning Cuban-American population and give President Bush an edge in the battleground state. Yet Tuesday’s returns suggest that Bush’s solid win in the state, 52 percent to 47 percent, or about 370,000 votes, may have helped Martinez squeeze out a slim victory.

Martinez had been dogged by complaints that he ran an overly negative campaign, even going so far as to call primary opponent Rep. Bill McCollum a tool of Washington’s “radical homosexual lobby,” a move that drew criticism from former Republican Sen. Connie Mack (Fla.).

After winning the GOP primary, Martinez relentlessly attacked Castor for not having fired a University of South Florida professor who was accused of having ties to terrorism while she was the university’s president.

Martinez’s lesser showing in comparison to Bush could also be attributed to his opposition to a popular state ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage by $1. That initiative passed 71 percent to 29 percent.

Castor, 63, who had not run for statewide office in 14 years, said the race would likely be her last.

Martinez is expected to be a strong conservative ally of the president in the Senate.

He favors tax cuts and tort reform and opposes abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research.

Martinez came to the United States alone at the age of 15 as part of the Catholic Church’s Operation Pedro Pan. He went on to be elected chairman of Orange County, which includes Orlando, and later became secretary of housing and urban development under Bush.

Republicans worked hard to mobilize Cuban-Americans for Tuesday’s election. Loly Maria Morera, 71, a former Cuban refugee and Bush-Cheney campaign volunteer, said she spoke to about 30 people in an eight-hour day working the phone banks in Miami.

“We arrived in this country with only the clothes on our backs. We’re very thankful
for this country. As a Christian, you have to vote for Bush,” she said.

The center of the Bush-Cheney campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts in Miami was a converted Mazda dealership on Lejeune Road where several dozen mostly Cuban volunteers tended the phones.

The campaign used radio ads featuring Republican Cuban-American Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart to publicize a transportation hot line. On Saturday, eight campaign vans buzzed in and out of the Lejeune Road headquarters.

“I’ve done over 20 radio programs in last 10 days encouraging people to use early voting,” Lincoln Diaz-Balart said before Tuesday’s election. “I represent Hialeah, the most Hispanic city in the country. I have no stronger base, and the president doesn’t either.”