MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
A surprising announcement today from a senator, Republican Mel Martinez of Florida says he is stepping down, even though his term doesn't end for more than a year. And that presents Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, with a dilemma. He's running to fill the Senate seat. But now he has to appoint someone to finish out the rest of Martinez's term.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen has our story.
GREG ALLEN: Mel Martinez announced last year he's retiring from the Senate when his term ends in 2010. At the time, though, he said he had no plans to leave early. That changed with today's announcement. He told his staff in Washington and a few hours later held a news conference in Orlando.
Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): Today I'm announcing my decision to step down from public office, effective upon a successor taking office to fill out the remainder of my term.
ALLEN: In a letter released to friends and family earlier in the day, Martinez said he was stepping down so he could spend more time with his family. In political circles that often turns out to be code for something else. But Martinez said his health is good and he was under no pressure to step down.
Senator MARTINEZ: There's no impending reason. It's only my desire to move on and to get on with the rest of my life.
ALLEN: Martinez's biography is one that's become familiar to many people here in Florida. He was born in Cuba and emigrated to the U.S. in 1962 under the Pedro Pan program, an operation run by the Catholic Church that found temporary homes in the U.S. for Cuban children.
He was reunited with his family and grew up in Orlando, where he later became county mayor. A few years later, he was tapped by President George W. Bush to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development, before leaving in 2003 to run for the U.S. Senate.
Now, after one term, he's calling it quits. One person who wasn't surprised was Al Cardenas, Martinez's friend and the former head of the Republican Party in Florida. Cardenas says after 12 years, Martinez was simply tired of juggling public service with his personal life.
Mr. AL CARDENAS (Former Chairman, Republican Party, Florida): Politics has never been an all-consuming endeavor for him, and he's glad he's done that. He gave it an intense effort, but he feels it's time to move on, and you have to respect that.
ALLEN: That was largely the tone among Florida Republicans today. Leaders released statements praising Martinez and thanking him for his years of service. But political consultant David Johnson, former executive director of the Republican Party in Florida, in this case, departed from the party line.
Mr. DAVID JOHNSON (Former Executive Director, Republican Party, Florida): I think it's wrong. I find it disrespectful to all the voters who supported him, the people who gave you personal money to contribute to your campaign and believed in your candidacy, and to the citizens you took an oath to represent.
ALLEN: In Tampa today, Florida Governor Charlie Crist joined the chorus of praise for Martinez and said he would immediately begin working to choose a replacement. Although he's running for the seat, Crist said he would not appoint himself to fill out the remainder of Martinez's term. Crist is widely expected to pick a respected and retired Republican officeholder. Former Senator Connie Mack, former Governor Bob Martinez, and former Secretary of State Jim Smith are all names that have surfaced.
University of South Florida political scientist Susan McManus, says that decision - who to choose to fill out the remaining 16 months of Martinez's term - may be a tricky one.
Professor SUSAN MCMANUS (Political Scientist, University of South Florida): Crist is walking a fine line because he has a split party at the moment. He has the very conservatives versus the more moderate Republicans. And whatever choice he makes on this front will obviously affect his support within those two groups.
ALLEN: For Republicans, Martinez's departure has another significance: They're losing their only Hispanic in the Senate and one of their top national Hispanic leaders, at a time when Latinos are leaning more and more to the Democratic Party.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.