The jockeying to fill Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate seat is so intense that one might forget Martinez is still in it.
Not only that: The Orlando Republican has nearly two years left.
And now that he doesn't have to spend time running for re-election, raising money and currying support, he's free to go out on his own terms.
So we caught up last week — in advance of this weekend's exclusive black-tie fundraiser for the Mennello Museum of American Art, where Martinez will be honored. Here's a quick-hit rundown:
•On serving out the rest of his term without running for re-election: "It's incredibly liberating," he said. "Before, whenever I could find a group of five or more people with checkbooks, I was there." Martinez said he always tried to vote his conscience, but acknowledged that everyone in Washington considers the political consequences of their votes. "Now," he said, "I don't have to worry about that at all."
•On voting against the stimulus: "It was more spending than stimulative spending." Still, he liked the portion of the bill dedicated to helping people avoid foreclosure.
•On immigration reform: Martinez called the debate "unpleasant" and "uncomfortable," but said he still feels a desire to deal with this thorny issue. When Martinez, a Cuban immigrant, previously tried to craft a bipartisan compromise with the likes of John McCain and then Sen. Barack Obama, members of his own party revolted. "I was basically doing what I thought was right," he said, adding that, instead of compromise, the nation got nothing — "which is really de facto amnesty."
•Most interesting people he met recently: The king and queen of Spain, who were visiting Miami.
•On Cuba: He's still not in favor of ending the embargo. But, because Martinez is the only Cuban-born member of the Senate, the White House may look to him for advice. He's already spoken with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the topic.
•Top priority for his last two years: "Housing," replied the nation's former Housing Secretary. "We need to stop foreclosure ... and draw down the immense inventory of unsold homes." He favors tax credits for home buyers.
•On what he won't miss about the Senate: "We're posturing more than we're getting things done."
•His future: He says he's not sure, but he may stay involved in public policy, even if it's in a non-elected fashion. It also sounds as though board seats (which can be lucrative and usually come easily to former senators) may be part of it.
The gala eventSaturday's gala — which will both honor Martinez and raise money for the Mennello Museum — is noteworthy for a couple of reasons:
First of all, it attracts the region's power elite. (Aside from both of Florida's U.S. senators, the crowd will include CEOs, politicians and philanthropists aplenty.)
But there is also the ticket price, which appears to be a record for local fundraisers — $625 a seat. Most seats, though, are actually sold to local companies and donors in blocks as tables for $5,000 or $10,000.
As for why the event is still able to attract such a crowd, the Mennello is generally viewed as one of Orlando's cultural gems — responsible, for instance, for a national tour of paintings by the museum's featured artist, Earl Cunningham, that included the Smithsonian. (Plus, Michael Mennello is a master at courting guests and their wallets.)
And hey, even if you can't afford a ticket to the fundraiser this weekend, the traveling Cunningham exhibit is slated to come back home to the Loch Haven museum on March 13 for all to see. More info at mennellomuseum.org.
Name tagsHometown comedian Billy Gardell reports that he's reprising his role as the bumbling Officer Hoyne in NBC's unique (and funny) sitcom, My Name is Earl. Gardell, a graduate of Winter Park High School, said he is slated to appear in all three of the show's final episodes this season — and return to his old stompin' grounds at Bonkerz in Altamonte Springs for two shows March 27 and 28. More info at Bonkerzcomedy.com.
•Track Shack owners Jon and Betsy Hughes are already well known on the local running scene. But they recently earned attention on the national level as well, being inducted into the Running USA Hall of Champions. The couple has been staging races around Central Florida for three decades — and running for even longer. In fact, Betsy said Thursday that, even after three foot surgeries: "I still love it."
•Locals making Talkers magazine's "Heavy Hundred" list of influential talk-radio hosts include 104.1 FM's Monsters in the Morning and Jim Philips, Daytona Beach 1150 AM's Marc Bernier and (semi-local) Bubba the Love Sponge out of Tampa.
•And finally on the fundraiser front, we have actress Cheryl Hines ( Curb Your Enthusiasm) and singer Jennifer Holliday (Dreamgirls) coming to town in a couple of weeks to help raise money for United Cerebral Palsy ... and Joey Fatone and Buddy Dyer among those competing in a cook-off at Johnny's Fillin' Station (where the eating is burgerlicious!) next week to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House. More info on both events at the Taking Names blog at orlandosentinel.com/takingnames.