Florida's Mel Martinez at HUD: Tough Job, Promising Start

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, March 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

Florida's Mel Martinez at HUD: Tough Job, Promising Start


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


As if it were a generation and not just a few short years since Republican conservatives were out to annihilate it, the Department of Housing and Urban Development appears to be sailing into the George W. Bush era with scarcely a ripple of controversy.

Melquiades Martinez, Bush's choice for secretary, won enthusiastic bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Scandal-plagued during the Reagan administration, the department was revived by Secretaries Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros and won widespread praise for radical management reforms effected under Andrew Cuomo, secretary in Clinton's second term.

Now Martinez, most recently the elected executive of Florida's Orange County (Orlando), is promising to be a "frequent and forceful" spokesman for housing priorities incorporated in the HUD budget (now over $32 billion a year).

For housing advocates, this selection seems a rare stroke of luck. Here's a man who fled Cuba as a teen-ager, speaking no English, worked his way through law school at Florida State University, and, as a member of the Orlando Housing Authority in the 1980s, fought for affordable housing for the elderly and single mother low-income households.

Martinez became a spokesman for the Cuban-American position in the Elian Gonzalez incident -- he even took Elian for a tour of Disney World. He became co-chair of the Bush presidential campaign in Florida. He's a close ally of Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him chair of a critical growth management study commission for the state.

One couldn't imagine better political cover as one arrives to enter Washingtons political wars in the GWB era.

In his HUD confirmation hearings, Martinez promised: "Far from being a caretaker, I intend to be a very active secretary." He even suggested his department's mandate should be expanded to taking an active role in helping states and localities curb the rapid-fire suburban growth triggered by the fast U.S. economic expansion of the 1990s.

The draft report from his Florida growth study commission can be faulted for lack of specificity on how to stop very bad projects. But it endorses "compact urban centers" and plows new ground with an analysis system focused on the full and indirect costs of development projects -- described by Martinez as the "centerpiece" of the commission's work.

The explicit goal: to level the playing field between center city projects and those on the suburban periphery. In most cases, town center projects, where infrastructure is already in place, can be counted to "cost out" more effectively.

Significance: We have a new HUD secretary attuned to "smart growth" principles -- a major breakthrough, and one especially unexpected under a Republican president from smart-growth-blind Texas. …

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