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 CNS Story:

MARTINEZ-SENATE Nov-8-2004 (540 words) With photo. xxxn

Martinez celebrates his win as first Cuban-American elected to Senate

By Mary St. Pierre
Catholic News Service

ORLANDO, Fla. (CNS) -- As he celebrated becoming the first Cuban-American to be elected to the Senate, Mel Martinez recalled that he came to the United States as a penniless teenager, and credited his achievements to "charitable organizations and good people" who have helped him over the years.

Following a hard-fought campaign, Martinez, a Catholic, was elected Nov. 2 by a narrow margin over his Democratic opponent, Betty Castor.

After receiving a congratulatory call from President George W. Bush the day after the election, Martinez was joined by his wife, Kitty, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in his first press conference as senator-elect. Martinez's win helped give the Republicans a majority in the Senate.

"Mel, it's real," said Frist, as he pulled a card from his pocket and read the official guidelines for a U.S. senator. "Now make sure to show up for work ... and be there on time."

After Frist presented Martinez, a member of St. James Cathedral Parish in Orlando, with a "2005 U.S. Senator" baseball cap, Martinez stepped to the multitude of microphones.

Speaking in Spanish and English, Martinez thanked those who helped him achieve his victory.

"It's such a blessing to think I have had the wonderful support and prayers of my family and so many other people," he said. "This country has made some choices and now it is time to move forward on them. Today is about uniting, it's about forgetting the past and moving forward."

Martinez, who left Cuba at the age of 14 and was part of Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s, recalled his arrival in the United States when he was temporarily housed by Catholic Charities before living with a foster family. Operation Pedro Pan was a Catholic humanitarian program that brought 14,000 unaccompanied minors from Cuba to this country.

He went on to graduate from Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando and Florida State University.

"To think," he said, "I arrived here as a young teenager, penniless and without a home, and because of the help of charitable organizations and good people, I have been able to achieve so much."

Martinez, a former trial lawyer, served the Bush administration as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2001-03.

Expressing interest in assignments to the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees in the Senate after he takes office in January, Martinez said he plans to focus on hurricane relief plans, medical malpractice and litigation reform.

Following the press conference, Kitty Martinez expressed relief that the campaign was over. She said she believes the support of voters who stood strong on pro-life issues and opposed same-sex marriage helped her husband win the election.

The most intense part of the campaign, she said, was when her husband and Castor participated in two televised debates.

"It never was difficult for either of us to answer questions fired at us about pro-life issues or the fact we stood by what we as Catholics believe," Kitty Martinez told The Florida Catholic, the newspaper for six dioceses in Florida. "It was always easy to give good solid answers because we know so much about the issues and strongly believe in them."


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