The announcement Friday by Mel Martinez that he won't finish his Senate term has turned Florida politics on its head. But it can easily right itself — and, in the process, do right by the residents of Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist holds the cards there. But before we bend them back to vet his options, we're compelled to say something about the hand Mr. Martinez played. About his decision to quit.
There's really no other way to put it. Mr. Martinez, like Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska before him, quit on his constituents, who elected him to serve a full term.
Sure, his principled stands on immigration and drilling off Florida's coast worked to diminish his standing among his Republican colleagues, perhaps hastening his announcement in December not to seek a second term. And yes, his vote on Thursday confirming Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court might cause some of his Senate partners to look down on him all the more.
Later this year, Mr. Martinez faced the likelihood of weighing in on health care and again on immigration and oil rigs in the Gulf, and the unpleasantness he'd again have to face from party leaders on those issues.
But most Floridians don't expect their representatives to win popularity contests in Washington by marching lock step with partisans — Democrats or Republicans. They expect them to take principled stands — stands benefiting the nation and state — and to suffer the consequences gladly.
Mr. Martinez appears glad only to be leaving this job behind. His constituents deserved more.
Some supporters of Gov. Charlie Crist, who gets to name Mr. Martinez's successor, wish the governor would simply name himself. Or they wish he'd step down and have Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who'd then become governor, send Mr. Crist to Washington. Months ago, after all, Mr. Crist declared his candidacy to succeed Mr. Martinez.
But if politics is anything about doing right by the people, Mr. Crist leapfrogging his way to the nation's capital doesn't qualify. It would leave, as we've noted, Mr. Kottkamp in charge of the state. Mr. Kottkamp's most significant accomplishment as lieutenant governor is flying state planes to and from work on the public's dime.
It also would compromise Mr. Crist's credibility as a senator, and not just among a public that rightly expects Mr. Martinez's successor to earn his or her way to Capitol Hill through an election in 2010. It would hurt him among senators, who look askance on anyone they perceive as getting there underhandedly or inappropriately.
Illinois Sen. Roland Burris, front and center, please.
Fortunately, Mr. Crist appears to be set on appointing someone to fill out the remainder of Mr. Martinez's term — someone who will then gracefully move aside for the winner of the 2010 election. Someone retired from elective politics, like Gov. Bob Martinez, Sen. Connie Mack or U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw. Someone who's taking a breather from it, like Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings or state Sen. Dan Webster. Someone, perhaps, who once held a Cabinet-level job like state Attorney General (and secretary of state) Jim Smith.
Whomever he appoints will say a lot about Mr. Crist and about the qualities he thinks a senator should possess. If he keeps the good of the state in mind, he'll pick someone with energy and passion. The word around Washington for some time is that Mr. Martinez hasn't had his heart in the job. His successor must, every day.
And on the issues, Mr. Crist hopefully won't appoint someone who thinks a good senator is someone who does what party leaders command. If Mr. Crist does otherwise, Floridians are likely to remember when he seeks their vote for senator in 2010.
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