Waiting for Mel Martinez

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 9:15 p.m.

So let's say that Mel Martinez, former secretary of HUD and Karl Rove's poster child for what the perfect Florida candidate will be wearing this year (Hispanic-American, self-made millionaire, Republican), came to Gainesville to make a campaign pitch for his U.S. Senate bid only to discover that his audience was made up entirely of former Kennedy Homes residents.

Talk about a pol's worst nightmare.

I mean, what could the guy possibly promise them?

"Elect me and I'll get government off your backs."

"Too late, chump, you already did that!"

"Well then, how about vouchers all around to send your kids to the finest private schools?"

"How 'bout just getting my kids out of the stinkin' hotel room they've been cooped up in since before Christmas?"

"Alrighty, then. I'll run your government like a business."

"Great! Could you start by getting HUD to do its job please?"

Of course, the above scenario will likely never come to pass.

First, Martinez probably won't come to Gainesville (except maybe to sit in the President's Box at a UF football game) because it's a Democratic town and there's not that much Republican money to raise around here.

And if Martinez did hold a GOP rally around here, it would probably be in a gated community, and Kennedy Homes folks would never get within a mile of it.

Heck, they don't even have a PAC. If they did, Kennedy Homes might not today be a padlocked, abandoned, rat-infested slum and its former residents might not have been evicted.

Money talks in Washington, pal. Human compassion walks.

When Martinez resigned last month we got a four-page press release from HUD lauding his numerous accomplishments while at the helm of that giant federal public housing agency.

Nothing unusual about that. We get press releases from HUD nearly every day. HUD eats up more of our fax paper than any other agency in Washington. It really, really, really wants us to know all about the wonderful things it's been doing with our tax dollars.

(Memo to Mel: You should have hired fewer PR flacks and more housing inspectors.)

Anyway, according to his well-oiled PR shop, in his short tenure at HUD, Mel increased home ownership, made housing more affordable, ended chronic homelessness, strengthened communities and (my favorite) improved public housing.

He also streamlined management, improved accountability and

emphasized ethics.

Don't take my word for it. Press releases don't lie.

Not a word about Kennedy Homes, though. It seemed to slip through the cracks of HUD's safety net. Mel and the gang couldn't be bothered.

Not after Kennedy Homes had been on HUD's "troubled" list for a full five years.

Not after the City Commission literally begged Washington to get involved.

Not after U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown appointed a task force to get to the bottom of the matter.

Not after ceilings began to collapse. Not after Kennedy Homes caught fire.

Not even after Aimco, which was being paid nearly $800,000 a year to provide quality housing for its tenants, washed its greedy hands of the whole business and walked away from the mess formerly known as Kennedy Homes.

Nada. Nothing. Nil. Bubkis.

"Hello, Washington? This is Gainesville. We've got a public housing disaster of epic proportions here that demands your immediate attention. Honest to God, somebody's gonna' die if you don't get on it soon.



The really curious thing about all of this is that, apparently, Secretary Martinez was a frequent flyer to Florida last year. Since he was in the neighborhood anyway, you'd think Mel might have spared a few moments to drop by and check out Kennedy Homes for himself.

It would have been an eye-opener.

According to The St. Petersburg Times, taxpayers shelled out more than $20,000 so Martinez could travel to Florida 13 times in 2003. That revelation prompted the Florida Democratic Party to file a Freedom of Information Act request with HUD in an effort to determine whether Martinez's Florida forays to the Sunshine State were political in nature or official business.

"It's no coincidence that Secretary Martinez's travels to Florida on the taxpayer's dime have increased in direct proportion to his interest in the Senate race," party spokesman Brad Woodhouse said. "Secretary Martinez has spent 2003 more focused on his political aspirations than tending to the nation's housing programs, which is the job that hardworking taxpayers are paying him for.

"It's clear that Martinez's travels to Florida have little to do with official business and everything to do with assessing his chances for political office."

If that's true, then Mel could have killed two birds with one stone with a quick stop in Gainesville - inspected a truly horrendous HUD-subsidized housing project, and maybe even picked up a few votes from Kennedy Homes residents who would have been grateful for his attention - or for anyone's attention at HUD.

But I'm being cynical. Heck, all you have to do is read the daily flood of HUD press releases to know that virtually everything Martinez did as secretary was official business. The Dems are just fishing with their Freedom of Information requests.

Then again, I am reminded of what Patrick Leahy once said: "Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not."

I didn't find it in any of the HUD press releases, but there are probably a number of logical reasons why the Kennedy Homes scandal - and it is a scandal, folks - failed to register on Martinez's radar screen while he was at HUD.

First off, the doomed project was named after a Democrat, and a dead one at that.

Second, most of the city commissioners are Democrats, as is Rep. Brown.

Third, Kennedy Homes is full of poor, black people who, if they vote at all, are going to vote Democrat.

And, finally, this is an administration that is for, of and by Corporate America. After all, Aimco got its HUD payments like clockwork. And let's face it, Corporate America likes it better when government doesn't do its job.

Just ask the slaughterhouse boys if they really want the USDA doing more inspections for mad cow disease.

Not anymore than the oil refinery kings want to be bothered with all that Clean Water Act red tape, or the utility nabobs by those pesky mercury emission controls.

"Son, you can't trust air you can't see. Here, have another campaign contribution."

No, seriously folks. Kennedy Homes may be a tiny drop in the federal public housing bucket. But HUD's utter failure to intervene in anything like a timely or constructive manner is a textbook example of governmental negligence. To put it bluntly, scores of poor, mostly black Gainesville families were treated like dirt because HUD couldn't be bothered to do its job.

And now, Mel Martinez, who fiddled away on junkets to Florida while Kennedy Homes literally burned, is getting ready to run for the U.S. Senate. He will certainly brag about his record of accomplishments, and promise to make government more accountable to our needs and, of course, cut our taxes.

And if anyone doubts it, the Martinez campaign will be happy to whip out all of those glowing, gushing HUD press releases to document their guy's public "record."

Gainesville to Mel: While you're campaigning for the U.S. Senate this year, please do drop in and say hello. And maybe explain exactly what went wrong at Kennedy Homes and exactly what you did to fix it.

We really want to know.



You still out there, buddy?

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