Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday named one of his closest confidants to fill out the term of resigning U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, assuring that he will have an ally serving as a caretaker senator as Crist seeks election to the seat himself in 2010.
Crist named George LeMieux, a lawyer and Crist's former chief of staff, to serve the final 17 months of Martinez's term, ending several weeks of speculation about how the governor would deal with the politically tricky issue of appointing someone to a job he wants for himself. Both Crist and Martinez are Republicans.
LeMieux, 40, will become the fifth senator, and the first Republican, to take his seat this year through appointment. The election of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and the confirmation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar prompted the other appointments.
“I congratulate George LeMieux for being appointed by the governor to fill the remainder of my term,” Martinez said in a statement. “George is bright, capable, and an accomplished administrator. My staff and I stand ready to ensure a smooth transition.”
Democrats immediately raked the governor for his choice.
“Charlie Crist came as close as he could to appointing himself to this position,” said Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
State Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman accused Crist of “political cronyism” in naming someone who has been at his side politically for so long. Thurman said LeMieux “has made millions over the past several years selling access to Crist to the highest bidders among Tallahassee's special interests.”
LeMieux was Crist's campaign manager in 2006 and also served as deputy attorney general of Florida when Crist was attorney general. He is regarded as one of the shrewdest political strategists in the state and, like Crist, is a moderate conservative.
Martinez announced Aug. 7 that he would resign from the Senate as soon as a replacement was selected. He had long ago announced that he would not seek re-election in 2010, but his announcement that he would not serve out his term caught Floridians and his fellow senators by surprise.
Crist kicked off a public search process for a replacement, with a list of nine possible successors. But LeMieux was always regarded as the safest choice if Crist was looking for loyalty and allegiance as he carried on his own campaign for the Senate. He remained one of Crist's most trusted advisers after leaving the governor's staff and is likely to be a strong supporter in Crist's own bid for the Senate.