A real fixer-upper 

How sweet it is to be Mel Martinez. Almost 40 years ago he snuck away from Fidel Castro's dictatorship as one of 14,000 schoolchildren smuggled out of Cuba during Operation Pedro Pan, a covert, grass-roots airlift conducted in the years before the Bay of Pigs. Another 50,000 Cuban children were left behind.

Last month, Martinez, the lowly chairman of Orange County, Fla., received a nice, if unforeseen Christmas present. He was asked by George W. Bush to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one of the president-elect's 14 cabinet positions. There might have been a few small signs over the past year that Martinez, who co-chaired the Bush campaign in Florida, was an emerging presence on the national political scene. But in the minds of every pundit in Central Florida, if not the entire country, Martinez had hit the lottery. "He was surprised as much as anyone," says Rick Foglesong, a Rollins College political scientist.

Martinez will have to hope that fortune continues to shine on him. He inherits an agency that for much of the roaring '90s was decimated by the Republican-led Congress. As several recent HUD reports point out, HUD's mission, to house the nation's poor, has been severely hindered by unsympathetic congressional leaders led by Rep. Rick Lazio of New York. From 1977 to 1994, the number of families HUD assisted grew by 2.6 million. From 1994 to 1998, however, the number HUD was able to help dropped by 65,000 families. Consequently, waiting times to get into public housing or to receive rental vouchers has grown. The number of families waiting for assistance has increased. Meanwhile, rents have steadily climbed, leaving the working poor with little spending money.

Congress recently has made affordable housing a priority once again. In October, HUD announced a 16 percent budget increase over the previous budget year, the agency's largest funding spike in 20 years. The funds are expected to pay for rent and mortgages for an additional 7.5 million families this year.

Into this arena steps Martinez, a 54-year-old attorney with no Washington experience or track record of helping the poor. Will he -- can he -- advocate on behalf of the 12.5 million Americans still in desperate need of aid? Especially when he'll have to fight his own party to do it?

"We are in a crisis right now," says Catherine Bishop, an attorney for the National Housing Law Project. "The question is, will the federal government respond? Will it act in a responsible fashion to address these issues?"

Skeptics say Martinez might not have been the best choice to lead HUD, because George W. clearly had ulterior motives. In choosing Martinez, the president-elect shores up a number of problems. He extends an olive branch to Florida voters still smarting over the contentious federal election; he pays back Martinez for diligently arguing the Republican position on the Elian Gonzalez custody dispute; and he grabs the attention of voters in Orange County, a pivotal presidential election battleground last November whose residents favored a Democrat for the first time in 54 years. Martinez's only criteria for being the secretary-elect is that he's considered a good manager, a good guy and was formerly involved with public housing in the 1980s. " He was chairman of the Orlando Housing Authority," says Michael Hoover, a political scientist at Seminole Community College. "Does that qualify him to run federal housing programs? That seems questionable to me."

Given little else to work with, housing advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach with Martinez. "You can probably tell me more about him than I can tell you," says Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Indeed, sometimes no news is good news. With one Bush cabinet appointee already forced by controversy to drop out and another, attorney general nominee John Ashcroft, generating a firestorm of criticism, Martinez's cordial treatment is remarkable.

At the same time, political observers are concerned that Martinez might have too much catching up to do. After all, his political career has been so short -- two years as county chairman, several years as board president of the city-run Orlando Utilities Commission, four years with the Orlando Housing Authority, participation on a smattering of civic boards -- that he has barely had time to grow in the chairman's job, much less make the necessary mistakes. "Most people thought he was doing a good job," says Aubrey Jewett, a UCF political-science professor. "About the only real problem that occurred was the light-rail fiasco, and that was a disaster for everyone." Originally an advocate, Martinez quietly backed away when public opinion dictated otherwise. "Many people thought he didn't take a strong enough stand," says Jewett.

It isn't unusual for cabinet members to know little about the inner workings of the departments they've been chosen to lead. Nominees often cram before facing Senate committee members who have extensive knowledge of a department's policies. But unlike Martinez, most nominees at least have a certain mastery of the issues they'll be focusing on so they can hit the ground running.

"He doesn't come in from a background where housing was a strong issue," says Mark Modzelewski, a special assistant under former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. Formerly mayor of San Antonio, Cisneros had a reputation as a low-income housing crusader before becoming secretary. Cisneros' successor, Andrew Cuomo, was an assistant secretary before taking over HUD. "We don't really see a big clue what Mel Martinez will do with the job," says Modzelewski. "That doesn't bode well for people who need HUD. You have to have strong priorities and a strong stomach."

Nobody anticipates that his nomination -- to be reviewed first by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, then by the full Senate -- will be held up. "We don't expect any problems based on information submitted by the transition team," says Jesse Jacobs, spokesman for Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland.

The nine Democrats and nine Republicans on the committee will grill Martinez on his commitment to affordable housing. They'll want to know the degree to which Martinez will be a housing advocate and whether he'll fight to sustain HUD's current funding level. Democrats especially will be concerned that HUD was a dumping ground for political appointees during the Reagan years. "We'll encourage him to appoint managers who will follow through with HUD's mission," Jacobs said in advance of the committee hearing, which was scheduled for Jan. 17.

Martinez's selling point no doubt will be his background. After reuniting in the United States with his family four years after Operation Pedro Pan, he attended Florida State University, being among the first of Orlando's small Cuban-American population to graduate from law school. He went into private practice as a personal injury attorney -- not exactly an occupation dear to most conservatives' hearts. He was known for a while as the only Spanish-speaking attorney in Orlando, often helping migrant workers and accident victims reap compensation from big business. "I think he felt comfortable and committed to being an advocate for the little guy," says John Boudet, Martinez's law partner in the mid-1980s.

Boudet remembers Martinez as someone interested in the PTA and Little League but who had "not one iota of political ambition." Even so, then-congressman Bill Nelson and other pols would drop by his office to seek endorsements.

Martinez's legal mentor was Bill Frederick, a former Orlando mayor who appointed Martinez to his first political position in 1982 on the board of the Orlando Housing Authority. (Martinez later served two years as board chairman.) By 1994, Martinez had developed a taste for public life. He ran for lieutenant governor of Florida with an old law school buddy, Ken Connor, who today heads the pro-life Family Research Council. Connor and Martinez's platform proved to be far more conservative than their opponent in the Republican primary, Jeb Bush, who himself was thought to be too conservative at the time.

Later, when he ran for Orange County chairman, Martinez moved more toward the middle, nudging out Democrat Fran Pignone and hard-line conservative Republican John Ostalkiewicz for the nonpartisan seat. During the campaign, Ostalkiewicz had a field day with Martinez's occupation, telling Orange County electors to "vote no to personal injury attorney Mel Martinez."

Pignone, meanwhile, has become friends with Martinez. She is among the references Martinez listed for the FBI background investigation he must undergo to become HUD secretary. "Mel is unlikely to make personal enemies," Boudet says.

In fact, about the only people who have uttered a negative word about Martinez personally are the writers and editors of Granma, the state-run newspaper of Cuba. Perhaps still smarting from Martinez's Disney World photo op with Elian Gonzalez last Christmas, the paper called Martinez a "worm" and said his nomination was "merely a prize for the Miami Mafia."

It is through Martinez's link to Cuba that pundits see the Martinez of old -- the conservative Martinez who is Catholic, pro-life, pro-market and anti-government. This is the Martinez who ran with Connor in the governor's race and was a trustee of the Cuban American National Foundation, a political organization of Cuban nationals waiting to reclaim the third-world island once Castro falls.

Foglesong, the Rollins College professor, used to appear with Martinez on a public television program called Opinion Street. He recalls a time when Martinez, off camera, began talking about returning to Cuba.

"You've got to be kidding," Foglesong responded. "You're not going back to Cuba."

" No," Foglesong remembers Martinez saying. "But I'd invest there."

"That's different," Foglesong says. "Repatriating your dollars is very different from repatriating yourself."

The Martinez with strong ties to Cuba isn't the person that appeals to the Chamber of Commerce crowd that Martinez has wooed since the Orange County chairman's election in 1998. They know the other Martinez: the pragmatic, centrist, laissez-faire manager who was willing to take a stand limiting development and terminate his fire chief because the chief failed to diversify the department.

Which Martinez reports for duty as HUD secretary will go a long way to determine how successful Martinez will be in providing the country with low-income housing. But Martinez hasn't exactly ignored the issue while in office here. He assembled an affordable-housing task force in 1999 that made nine recommendations to Orange County commissioners last February.

The recommendations have led to a number of changes in county government. Developers now can receive 1-percent-interest loans and have some of their impact fees deferred or reduced when they build low-income housing. Even so, by the year 2010, the county expects a deficit of 48,000 homes for families earning less than $25,000 a year.

While Martinez deserves credit for the task force, it points at only one side of a solution to the housing problem. Advocates agree that approaches to low-income housing must be multi-faceted. Not only is home-ownership important, but so are rental vouchers and public housing. Many poor people -- the elderly, some disabled, and the extremely poor -- either do not want or will never have enough credit to buy a home. The best way to provide shelter for them is to place them in housing projects or subsidize the rent they pay to private landlords.

But between 1995 and 1999, Congress capped the number of rental vouchers HUD can issue -- the first freeze in the voucher system since the program began in 1974. This year's budget provides for 80,000 new vouchers. But housing advocates are worried that Congress will retreat to the 1995 numbers.

And since the early 1990s, HUD has been tearing down housing projects. The agency already has demolished 59,000 units, with another 50,000 slated for condemnation. While the demolition is good for residents of congested apartment towers such as Chicago's Cabrini-Green complex, where crime proliferates, it isn't good for low-income people watching the overall number of publicly owned apartments dwindle. "There should not be a reduction in units," says Bishop, of the National Housing Law Project. "There should be as many in the end as there were in the beginning."

Bishop says Martinez also needs to encourage developers to remain involved in low-income housing. She says many landlords opt out of federal programs because they can make more money on the open market. "In the past, prior to 1980, the homeless could at least live in flop houses," she says. "We've got to get these kinds of [low-income] units back on the market."

She's encouraged because George W., if not Al Gore, mentioned low-income housing during the presidential campaign. During George W.'s Aug. 4 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the president-elect repeated a theme similar to Martinez's, that poor people should own homes: "We will transform today's housing rental program to help hundreds of thousands of low-income families find stability and dignity in a home of their own."

That's a good start. But affordable housing issues reach all the way down to the poorest Americans, those who sleep on park benches, in Dumpsters or in make-shift cardboard huts. It's these people who will prove to be the most difficult to help. This segment of the population typically has mental-health and substance-abuse problems. They need professional help, and they need a roof over their heads.

"If we're going to end homelessness, we need to tackle the hardest group," says Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Roman would like to see the federal government invest in 200,000 new units designated specifically for the homeless. She'd also like to see Martinez work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services so that homeless shelters aren't being filled with parolees and mental-health patients. These people should be released into halfway houses, she says, freeing up homeless shelters for people who are truly homeless.

Everybody agrees Martinez is a quick learner. But the jury's out on whether he'd be willing get down and dirty on behalf of the nation's poor. Or whether they'd accept him as their most visible advocate. "Mel at his best has been a suburban politician," Foglesong says. "I can't see Mel going into the black housing projects in Chicago and being greeted warmly there."

Housing advocates say the true indication of how serious Martinez and his boss are about affordable housing will come in early April, when George W. presents his first budget to Congress. If HUD's numbers slip much more than the $32.4 billion allocated for the current budget year, then the nation's poor will be in serious trouble. "What happens within the administration is just as what happens on the Hill," Roman says. "Every secretary will be jockeying for position to claim a piece of the budget. That's where their relationship with the administration becomes important."

Whatever the outcome of that battle, Martinez shouldn't expect his job to ease up any time soon. Unlike other federal agencies, HUD typically receives few political appointees -- 77 compared with more than 300 for the USDA. And only 17 of those will be senior-level appointees who, like Martinez, must undergo Senate confirmation. Those 77 "loyalists" will be called on to accomplish all kinds of late-night tasks long after HUD's other 9,000 employees have gone home. Which means no vacations, seven-day workweeks, 15-hour workdays. "It's like boot camp," says Bruce Katz, Cisneros' chief of staff from 1993 to 1996. "You're dealing with a wide-flung network of mortgage bankers, realtors and nonprofits."

And all that time and energy might not help Martinez's political career once he returns from Washington. For all the fanfare he's received as he prepares to depart Orange County, he's likely to find the media spotlight extinguish not long after he assumes control of HUD. The American public isn't that curious about the low-profile office, which helps explain why Congress feels it can gut the agency willy-nilly. Meaning that, ironically, Orange County voters will hear very little from a man who was once the most powerful elected official in Central Florida.

"You can bet on that," says Jewett, the UCF political scientist.


More by William Dean Hinton


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