THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Crist taps LeMieux for U.S. Senate, Dems cry cronyism

Aug 28, 2009

By News Service of Florida staff

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Aug. 28, 2009……..When it came time for Gov. Charlie Crist to tap someone for the U.S. Senate post he is seeking to win next year, the governor played it safe and picked the man who helped win him the job he has now.

Political operative and lawyer George LeMieux, who managed Gov. Charlie Crist’s 2006 campaign for governor and served him as chief of staff, will now go to Washington to serve out the remainder of U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez’ term. Crist picked LeMieux, 40, over several better known candidates and made the announcement Friday at the Old Capitol.

The duo planned to head to Fort Lauderdale for a South Florida announcement Friday afternoon. Before they left however, Crist did not demur on his close relationship with LeMieux, saying that his self-proclaimed political “maestro” would ably replace Martinez temporarily while he runs to take over the seat permanently.

“I am not only happy for my friend, I’m happy for my state because I know what kind of public servant he has been and he will be,” Crist said. “I know his soul and I know he will serve the people of this state honorably.”

Over the last couple of weeks, Crist interviewed several potential candidates for the vacancy, including U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and former members of Congress Mike Bilirakis, Clay Shaw and Lou Frey. Crist also spoke with current state Rep. Jennifer Carroll, of Green Cove Springs, and former state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden.

Also on the short list with LeMieux were former state attorney general Jim Smith, former Miami federal prosecutor Bobby Martinez, and current University of North Florida President and former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney.

But in the end, Crist went with the candidate he knew best. In addition to running the governor’s office for Crist’s first year in office, LeMieux served as Crist’s deputy Attorney General.

In his first remarks as Senator-designate, LeMieux did little to temper the notion that he would be a place holder for his former boss. He praised Martinez for “serving the people of the state well,¬†with integrity and with honor” and said that he was eager to get to work in Washington, D.C. although he would not be there long.

“There are tremendous issues facing this nation and although my time in Washington will be brief, I intend to work every day to address each critical challenge and serve the peoples of this unique, diverse and wonderful state,” he said.

LeMieux ran Crist’s successful 2006 campaign for governor and then served as the governor’s chief of staff until December 2007, when he left the post for a job in the Gunster Yoakley law firm. He said he’ll Friday that he’ll resign his chairmanship in the law firm in next few days and travel to Washington next week.

LeMieux positioned himself as a fiscal conservative, saying that he wanted to work on the ongoing health care debate and lowering the national debt when he got to Washington.

“The governor has reminded me…that this country is almost $12 trillion in debt and its set to go an estimated $1.6 trillion (more) in debt a year for the next 10 years,” he said. “That worries me for my three sons that they’re not going to have the opportunities we had, so I want to focus on what government spends its money on, how it can do it more efficiently and how it can do it more effectively.”

LeMieux said his work as Crist’s chief of staff and deputy Attorney General prepared him well for the role, but state and national Democrats disagreed, charging the pick amounted to “a glaring example of political cronyism.”

“Today, Charlie Crist decided to play political games with the public’s trust by appointing George LeMieux to the U.S. Senate,” Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman said in a statement. “Floridians are sick of the Republican culture of corruption and the Tallahassee back room dealings that clearly led Crist to pick LeMieux, whose only qualification is being Charlie Crist’s crony.”

Eric Schultz, communications director for the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, agreed, saying picking LeMieux was as close as Crist could come to tapping himself to fill the vacancy without actually doing so.

“Nothing is beyond the pale for Charlie Crist,” Schultz said in a statement. “Today marked another Charlie Crist choice that significantly impacts the state of Florida but is ultimately about promoting himself.”

Likely Democratic Senate nominee Kendrick Meek also slammed the pick, saying the governor used the interview process to check the political boxes and then picked his right-hand man.

“From the moment Sen. Martinez announced his retirement, Gov. Crist placed his ambitions over Florida’s needs,” Meek said. “Floridians require a senator working to ease their economic pain and achieve comprehensive health insurance reform, not a political appointee who serves the monied special interests. The governor added another edition to his campaign team at taxpayers’ expense.”

Crist requested applications from a cross-section of prominent Republicans, including a black woman, two Hispanics, and contenders who could quiet the party’s more conservative wing. Most polls show Crist’s holding a wide-lead over Meek and his Republican primary opponent, former House Speaker Marco Rubio.

However, some other Republicans were also critical of the LeMieux pick. John “Mac” Stipanovich, a Tallahassee lobbyist, former gubernatorial chief-of-staff, and a fund-raiser for Charlie Crist’s 2006 campaign for governor, told the News Service that he was left “speechless” by LeMieux’s appointment.

“I like George,” Stipanovich prefaced. “But you look at the list of people that the governor was interviewing: a university president, a longtime congressman, a former U.S. attorney….I don’t know.”

Stipanovich said Crist seemed to favor familiarity over experience — and the confidence he had that LeMieux would stand by his pledge not to seek the Senate seat on his own next year, when Crist will be a candidate for it. Perhaps Crist didn’t hold the same level of trust in the other contenders, he said.

“George knows the governor and he knows Florida,” Stipanovich said. “But that’s not the issue. He’s going to serve in the U.S. Senate, and he’s never before held an elective office.”

Rubio, who has been highly critical of Crist during his primary run against the governor, called the pick “disappointing,” and used the opportunity to take another shot at the governor as not conservative enough.

“George LeMieux is a talented political operative and the governor’s best friend, but that doesn’t make him the right choice to represent Florida in the Senate,” Rubio said. “Gov. Crist had a wealth of consistent and principled conservative candidates to choose from, all of whom would have been a reliable check and balance on the excesses of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.”

Speaking with reporters after the announcement, Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer dismissed criticism of the appointment, saying LeMieux was “well-qualified” for the post and would “serve the state with honor and dignity.”

“He’s a conservative Republican [and] a dedicated public-servant and I think anyone that doesn’t appreciate George’s qualifications don’t know all the facts,” he said. “The Democrats’ response to this selection is partisan and doesn’t take into consideration that George LeMieux is going to make a great United States senator.”

Greer also dismissed the notion that other candidates were interviewed for show, saying the fix was not in for the maestro.

“He carefully considered all the candidates and made a great choice,” Greer said.
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