Officially sworn in on 4 January 2005 as the thirty-third senator of the state of Florida, Mel Martinez made history when he assumed his role as the first Cuban American U.S. senator.
Prior to the Senate, Martinez served President George W. Bush in his Cabinet as the nation's twelfth Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary. After serving three years as the HUD secretary, Martinez returned to Florida in 2004 to seek the Republican nomination for the United States Senate.
Prior to serving President Bush in Washington, D.C., Senator Martinez was the first popularly elected Republican to serve as Orange County Chairman.
Senator Martinez was born in Sagua la Grande, Cuba, on 23 October 1946. At the age of fifteen, Martinez came to Florida from his native Cuba as a part of Operation Peter Pan, a humanitarian program led by the Catholic church that helped over fourteen thousand Cuban children escape communist Cuba.
Martinez graduated from Bishop Moore High School in Orlando and went to Florida State University in Tallahassee where he earned his undergraduate and law degrees. Upon graduating from law school, Martinez returned to Orlando and went to work with a law firm.
The senator currently serves on the Senate Committees on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Energy and Natural Resources; and Foreign Relations; and the Special Committee on Aging.
Senator Martinez and his wife of thirty-four years, Kitty, have three children: Lauren Shea, John, and Andrew. Lauren, 27, and her husband, Tim Shea, live in Jacksonville with their two children, Jack and Kaley; John, 23, is a law school student at Florida State University in Tallahassee; and Andrew, 11, resides in Orlando with his parents.
Milagros "Mimi" Aledo and Rafael J. Lopez, senior editors of HJHP, interviewed Sen. Mel Martinez on 18 February 2005. Ms. Aledo, a native of Florida, recently spent a year serving as an AmeriCorp volunteer in Lafayette, Colo. She will receive a master in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2006. Mr. Lopez, a native of Watsonville, Calif., most recently served as an elected council member of the Watsonville City Council and was the founding executive director of First 5 Santa Cruz County. He will receive a master in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2005.
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy. We know how busy you are as a new senator and are honored to include you in this year's journal. Sen. Martinez, what motivated you to run for the United States Senate?
My motivation is rooted in my life story, my desire to give back to people who were so dear and helpful to me in my life when I immigrated here, and giving back to this country. Running for the Senate is an extension of that. It's a great place in which I have now an opportunity to do for the nation, to do for others. I am very, very thrilled to have that possibility now come to be a reality.
Education remains a central issue for Latinos across the country, yet access to high-quality schools, at every level, remains a challenge for most communities. What role do you anticipate playing as the newly elected senator from Florida?
First of all, I think the key to success is education. I am distressed by the high dropout rate among Hispanic children in our country. I think that it is something that has got to be curtailed, that we have to do something to reduce it. I believe that education is the key to opportunity, to a better life and a better future. Without a doubt we have to work across party lines. We have to work with Democrats and Republicans, particularly on something like education. As you know, President Bush, I think partnered with Sen. Kennedy (D-Mass. …