Florida's New Senator Viewed As Governor's Proxy

George LeMieux and Gov. Charlie Crist make their way to a news conference. i i

George LeMieux (left) and Gov. Charlie Crist make their way to an Aug. 28 news conference in Tallahassee, Fla., where Crist named LeMieux to replace retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. Phil Coale/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Coale/AP
George LeMieux and Gov. Charlie Crist make their way to a news conference.

George LeMieux (left) and Gov. Charlie Crist make their way to an Aug. 28 news conference in Tallahassee, Fla., where Crist named LeMieux to replace retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.

Phil Coale/AP

There's a new player in Congress joining the health care debate. George LeMieux will be sworn in this week as Florida's junior senator, replacing Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who is retiring midterm.

But on Wednesday evening, LeMieux will listen to President Obama's address to Congress from the visitors' gallery. He doesn't take office till Thursday.

And his appointment has caused controversy back home in Florida because of his close ties with Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. LeMieux is viewed by many to be merely a placeholder for Crist, who has already begun campaigning for a 2010 Senate run.

'The Maestro'

Crist has even called LeMieux "The Maestro." The political partnership between the two men began in 2002, when Crist was elected Florida's attorney general and LeMieux served as his deputy.

Then, when Crist ran for governor in 2006, LeMieux was his campaign manager, helping him to win the seat. After Crist became governor, he named LeMieux his chief of staff, a position LeMieux served in for a year.

And in late August, Crist again tapped LeMieux, this time to take over the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Martinez. In announcing his choice of LeMieux for the Senate seat, Crist made it clear that there are few people he thinks more of than LeMieux.

"His public record and his public service is extraordinary," Crist said. "So many different initiatives that we were able to bring forward in this administration would not have occurred but for my friend George LeMieux."

While chief of staff, LeMieux helped negotiate a lucrative and politically sensitive gambling deal with the Seminole tribe of Florida. After leaving the governor's staff, he continued to work with the tribe to negotiate a second deal that is now before the state Legislature.

His influence, though, goes far beyond his work on policy issues. He is the former chairman of the Republican Party of Broward County and a partner in a well-connected law firm based in Fort Lauderdale.

When sworn in, he will be the fifth person this year to enter the Senate not by election but by appointment — joining new senators who have taken over seats formerly held by President Obama, Vice President Biden and other members of their administration. And, if Massachusetts legislators change the law in that state, there may soon be a sixth appointee taking the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Clearing The Way For A Crist Senate Run

Although few challenge his competence, there has been a lot of grumbling in Florida that LeMieux's appointment is nothing more than political cronyism. Editorials across the state panned Crist's decision as disappointing and self-serving.

LeMieux says everyone is entitled to an opinion.

"[Crist] tried to pick the best person who would serve the interests of Florida. And I've had the great opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with the governor. I think he knows my love of policy and the issues and of trying to do things better in government, more efficiently and effectively. And I think that's why he chose me," LeMieux says.

Not lost in this conversation is the especially salient fact that Crist himself is running for the Senate seat he has asked LeMieux to fill.

Crist is a moderate Republican and popular in Florida with a 60 percent approval rating; he is hoping to ride that popularity into the U.S. Senate. It was assumed Crist would only pick someone who would pledge not to run again when his term is up. LeMieux says that in his conversation with the governor, that subject never came up.

"He's never asked me whether I would run or not," LeMieux says. "I'm not going to run. I've got enough to focus on, being a United States senator for the next 16 months."

While he conducted his well-publicized search for a successor to Martinez, Crist was pressured by many to choose a Hispanic or a conservative. In the end, he chose neither, selecting instead his close political ally, who is unlikely to do anything that would threaten Crist's chances of winning the seat in 2010.

LeMieux denies that he'll be just a seat-warmer, and Crist agrees — saying his appointee will be a free agent, able to vote his conscience and do what's best for the people of Florida. But Democrat Bob Graham, who for three terms held the seat LeMieux is now taking, says that is bound to be met with some skepticism.

Graham says every LeMieux vote now becomes a potential campaign issue.

"Crist as a candidate is going to be in the position of either applauding or defending the votes of George LeMieux as his vote," Graham says.

First Issue Up: Health Care

One of the first issues LeMieux will deal with is health care. LeMieux says he has already spent several hours reading the more than 1,000-page Waxman bill. And on Wednesday evening, he says he will be listening to President Obama with an open mind.

"I think everyone has to be in favor of better health care, for better access and for more affordability. We all are for that," LeMieux says. "The question is how do we do it, and will the solution be worse than the problem?"

There may be many other politically sensitive votes for Crist to either "applaud or defend." Along with a health care overhaul, the Senate is also considering increased regulation of the financial industry and an energy bill that will address climate change.

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