Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, co-author of a bill to grant amnesty to illegal aliens, has been picked by White House strategist Karl Rove to be general chairman of the Republican National Committee, RNC officials confirmed yesterday.
While the chairman is elected by the 165-member RNC—which next meets in Washington in January—the committee traditionally acts as a rubber stamp for a Republican president when the party controls the White House.
The surprise Martinez appointment, leaked yesterday to selected TV outlets and wire services, cut off a move by conservative Republicans to have Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele take over the national party chairmanship. Current Chairman Ken Mehlman announced last week he would step down at the January meeting.
Mr. Martinez “will do a first-rate job for the Republican Party,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, who said he has “the highest regard for his ability and experience, and highly [supports] his candidacy.”
An RNC spokeswoman said she could not officially confirm the Martinez-Duncan appointments and that an official announcement would be made in a couple of days. Mr. Martinez served as the Bush administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development before narrowly winning a 2004 Senate race in Florida.
The move was seen as a signal that the White House intends to push through Congress the “comprehensive” immigration bill—which Mr. Martinez and Mr. Hagel backed in the Senate—that was blocked by conservative Republicans in the House.
“Clearly, Martinez is going to lead the fight for amnesty that Bush couldn’t win when Republicans controlled the Congress,” the RNC member said.
While campaigning for the Senate in Maryland, Mr. Steele was an outspoken critic of the Hagel-Martinez measure—which would have created a guest-worker program and allowed most illegal aliens to become citizens—blaming “the partisan gamesmanship of Washington insiders” for the failure to deal with the problem.
Mr. Steele’s campaign—particularly his humorous TV ads and his nationally televised debate against Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin on NBC’s “Meet the Press”—impressed many conservative Republicans.
“Michael Steele would make a superb Republican National Committee chairman,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times. “His race for the Senate was probably the most positive and most likable of any race in 2006.”
Two months after taking office, Mr. Martinez was involved in an incident that caused Republicans embarrassment in the Terri Schiavo case, when—as he later explained—he accidentally handed Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, a memo describing political motivations for the high-profile congressional effort to save the incapacitated Florida woman’s life.
Some RNC members yesterday saw the naming of Mr. Martinez as a continuing tendency of the Bush administration to manipulate the national party.