Profile: Sen. Mel R. Martinez (R-FL), Ranking member, U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging

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Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL)
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL)
While still a boy, Sen. Mel Martinez was forced to flee Cuba without his parents for the United States. It was an ordeal that, he says, has given him “a more caring heart” for the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly.
“It's just something that's pretty much ingrained in my being, undoubtedly as part of the harsh experience I endured as a young person,” notes the only Cuban and sole immigrant in the Senate.

As the new ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, he recently has sponsored key legislation affecting older adults. Among the more controversial measures is the Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act, which would invalidate pre-admission arbitration agreements between providers and residents.

While nursing homes staunchly oppose this bill, Martinez, a Republican, stands just as firmly behind it. He does not believe families should be “in an unfair bargaining position” when they place loved ones in facilities.

Personally, he relates to the difficulties caregivers face. One of his regular activities when he is in Orlando is to visit his 86-year-old mother, who still lives in her home. On Sunday nights, the whole Martinez clan, including his brother Ralph and family, gathers with her for dinner. Rice and beans and other Cuban dishes are likely to be on the menu.

Other than immigrants, few people can quite relate to what Martinez experienced to come to the U.S. He and his family were forced to emigrate when Fidel Castro assumed control of the Caribbean nation in 1959.

The 15-year-old Martinez arrived in Orlando with the help of  Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic humanitarian effort. The program helped bring over thousands of children. He lived with two foster families before reuniting with his parents four years later. He worked his way through college and law school before he became a successful trial attorney in Orlando.

Today, the private Martinez feels a debt of gratitude to his adopted country. The devotion and love of his foster parents led him to seek a life of public service, he adds.

He also maintains a strong Catholic faith. When he is home from Washington, he attends St. James Cathedral on Sundays with his wife, Kitty, and teenage son, John. (He also has another son, Andrew; a daughter, Lauren; and three grandchildren.) But he is like any other parishioner, St. James' Rev. John McCormick says.

“I would say, obviously, public life has meant a lot to him, but he doesn't flaunt it,” says the priest, who is close to the senator.

Fellow parishioner and longtime friend Kevin Shaughnessy admires Martinez for his community involvement, such as his work on behalf of the homeless and the Boy Scouts.

“All things Florida State University” also are among Martinez's favorite subjects, along with fishing and hunting. It's not uncommon for him to gather a group of alumni from Florida State and rival colleges at a local restaurant to argue college football.

Still, the freshman senator is serious when it comes to his family and his causes.

“He's a caring and compassionate man with strong convictions and he's very passionate about helping people,” Shaughnessy says.

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Resume

1946
Born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba

1962
Arrives in the United States with help from Operation Pedro Pan

1973
Receives J.S. from Florida State University College of Law. Goes on to practice law in Florida for 25 years

1998
Becomes chairman of Orange County, FL

2000
Works as co-chairman of George W. Bush's presidential election campaign

2001
Serves as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development

2005
Begins first term as Republican U.S. senator from Florida