Gov. Charlie Crist chose trust and loyalty on Friday over Washington experience or potential political gain in choosing former chief of staff George LeMieux to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.
LeMieux is Crist's closest political adviser and the governor's pick shows he wants someone who thinks like him to hold the Senate seat Crist hopes to win in the November 2010 election.
LeMieux served as deputy attorney general under Crist and left that job to run Crist's 2006 campaign for governor. Once elected, Crist picked LeMieux to serve as chief of staff. LeMieux left the position in December 2007 and has since worked for the Tallahassee law firm Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart. Crist still seeks his advice on political and policy issues.
"I know the kind of public servant he has been and will be. I know his soul, and I know that he will serve the people of the state honorably and well," Crist said after announcing the pick.
LeMieux, who has described himself as "a Charlie Crist Republican," said he will serve in the same spirit as Crist.
"I've learned working with this great governor that public servants have to be problem solvers and I will seek to be a problem solver in Washington, D.C.," LeMieux said. "I will be guided by the principles of limited government like this great governor."
LeMieux named the national debt as a major concern as he heads to Washington.
"This county is almost $12 trillion in debt and is set to go another trillion-six a year for an estimated next 10 years," LeMieux said. "I want to focus on what government spends its money on, how it can do it more efficiently and how it can do be more effective."
Martinez issued a statement congratulating LeMieux and saying he and his staff will begin working with him on the transition.
"George is bright, capable, and an accomplished administrator," Martinez said.
But State Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman called the appointment a "glaring example of political cronyism" and "the last thing Florida needed while we face these tough economic times and the Congress is tackling critical issues such as health insurance reform and global warming."
Thurman accused LeMieux of profiting "millions" from his close relationship with Crist. LeMieux is not a registered lobbyist, but the law firm he chairs earned nearly $3 million from the state over the fiscal year that ended in June, nearly $2 million more than the previous fiscal year. The fiscal year before LeMieux became chairman of the firm, it received no state payments, according to the state Department of Financial Services. However, the year before that, it earned more than $4.4 million in state business.
"Charlie Crist once again put his own political ambition above doing what is right for Florida," 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."
LeMieux said he is resigning his position at the firm.
Crist had a final list of nine candidates for the appointment. It included former U.S. Reps. Clay Shaw, Mike Bilirakis, Lou Frey and state Rep. Jennifer Carroll. Crist also passed on a chance to please party conservatives by picking former Sen. Dan Webster.
The governor also could have tried to win points with certain constituents by picking Carroll, a black woman and retired Navy officer, or former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, who was born in Cuba.
Other candidates considered were University of North Florida president and former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney and Jim Smith, a Tallahassee lobbyist who is a former attorney general and secretary of state.
Martinez announced in December he wouldn't seek a second term, and earlier this month said he would step down once Crist found a replacement. Martinez was the first Cuban native to be elected to the Senate, and previously served as President George W. Bush's housing secretary.
LeMieux was born and raised in Broward County and was twice elected the county's Republican Party chairman. In 1998 he unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat.
Crist faces former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary next August. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek is the only major Democrat in the race, though Rep. Corrine Brown has formed a committee to explore a Senate run.