Last winter, when Elian Gonzalez went to visit Walt Disney World in Orange County, Florida, county workers got a chance to see what a media pile-on looks like. Turns out, it was just a preview.
The man who invited Elian to see the area's best-known attraction-- and who accompanied him there--was Mel Martinez, Orange County's chief elected official; the event drew a pack of reporters and landed him on national TV. But that didn't turn out to be Martinez's publicity coup of the year. In mid-December, the veteran local official was nominated to be President George W. Bush's secretary of housing and urban development, and the deluge of calls, visits and interview requests left county staff staggering. "This," one Martinez aide commented, "is like Elian on steroids."
It was a heady moment, and from time to time, Martinez may find himself nostalgic for it. Because now that he's in Washington, he faces a different public relations challenge: Can he command even a fraction of the attention he got while still in Florida?
Martinez takes over HUD at a time when what ought to be one of the department's signal issues--affordable housing--is taking on crisis proportions in state and local officials' minds, but has yet to float to the surface in the nation's capital. "Affordable housing is very much on the radar screen of many localities and regions, from Seattle to Silicon Valley to Boston and Chicago," says Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington. "But it is nowhere on the national radar screen. There really is a vacuum at the national level." It will essentially be up to Martinez to change that, and to draw national attention to the problem.
As it happens, he knows something about the issue. The Orlando area is among the fastest-growing regions in the country--Orange County gained close to 200,000 residents during the 1990s--and many of its residents are employed in the tourism industry, which is filled with minimum-wage jobs. Not only has the homeownership rate in the county dropped as its population has grown but so has the availability of apartments for low- and moderate-income families. This is why, not long after he was elected county chairman in 1998, Martinez created a task force to look into affordable housing; the result was that the county beefed up its efforts to fund the construction of new units, drawing on a blend of state and federal money to spur private investment.
That straightforward approach to the problem is typical of Martinez, who is 54 and came to this country as a 15-year-old refugee from Cuba. "In cases involving product liability or malpractice," says Skip Dalton, who for 11 years was Martinez's partner in a small civil- litigation law firm, "you have to surround yourself with experts to teach you what you need to know. It's a natural thing for Mel to approach government the same way."
Candid, articulate and affable, Martinez has been involved in public affairs since 1982, when he was appointed to a seat on the Orlando Housing Authority; two years later, he became its chairman. His post as Orange County chairman, though, was his first real political office. In addition to tackling affordable housing, he spent much of his time on the burdens imposed by the county's growth, drawing attention for his decision to have county planners look at school overcrowding and other infrastructure problems before he would approve zoning changes sought by developers who wanted to build in the area.
The move drew considerable fire, but Martinez shrugged it off. "It's kind of a tired phrase to say that he doesn't have hidden agendas, but it's true," says Dalton. "He thinks about a subject and reaches a conclusion and then he tells you what it is. He doesn't spin it depending on the crowd he's in."