Gov. Bush, attorney cross paths in wake of tsunami

Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 11:24 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Security officers and police had cleared most visitors out of the Bangkok's Four Season's hotel lobby last week. They were prepping for the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on a fact-finding mission to the tsunami-struck region for President George W. Bush.
It seems safe to say that the last man Gov. Bush expected to meet in the lobby was Jim Wilkes - the colorful Tampa attorney who has made millions from suing nursing homes around the country. "The governor comes up and I was standing there waiting in the lobby," Wilkes said in a phone call from Thailand on Thursday. ''He was exhausted after the long trip. Jeb just said, 'Jim? What are you doing here?' I'm glad they came.''
Wilkes is the co-founder of the national law firm Wilkes & McHugh, and a major political donor in Florida and across the country. He was in Thailand to assess tsunami damage himself. Wilkes, an attorney for boxing's world junior middleweight champion Winky Wright, had already planned to travel to Thailand to meet with the head of the Asian Boxing Council. After the tsunami hit, ''we shifted the plans around," Wilkes said.
Wilkes was stationed in Thailand for one year during an early 1970s stint in the Army and never lost his affection for the country. He sounded pained and surprised at the depth of despair he'd seen.
Wilkes is generally a raconteur with few peers, spinning tales of his days as a country singer, a washing machine salesman and a career of antagonizing nursing home corporations. But the tsunami did what few have achieved. ''I'm usually not at a loss for words,'' he said when asked to describe what he'd seen. ''It's the kind of thing that's not likely to happen again in our lifetime. It changes perspective.
''The only problem, candidly, was the smell. The human flesh. That's a little freaky,'' he said.
Wilkes said well-intentioned donations of clothing are heaped in useless mounds. He said the biggest need is heavy machinery operators to clear debris and increase access to help.
Wilkes gave $100,000 to an effort aiding orphans. His message to fellow Floridians who can afford the trip was to visit the affected countries in the future. ''This country is very dependent on tourism. We don't need to isolate them . . . Not going to Bangkok would be like not going to Atlanta because there was a hurricane in Key West," he said.
Martinez, Nelson When Mel Martinez was sworn in as Florida's newest U.S. senator last week, he joined U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on several key committees.
Nelson, who was elected in 2000, didn't share any committee assignments with former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida. But Nelson will share the Foreign Relations Committee with Martinez, R-Fla., as well as serving together on the Special Committee on Aging.
Martinez, who came to Florida as a 15-year-old refugee from Cuba, said serving on the Foreign Relations panel ''will put me in a position to influence foreign policy at a critical time in our nation's history.'' Among other things, the committee oversees international treaties, terrorism issues and drug-trafficking policies.
''Having come from the tyranny and dictatorship of Castro's Cuba as a child, I hold nothing more dearly than the American principles of freedom, democracy and human rights,'' Martinez said.
In his new role, Martinez had left Washington by the end of the week to head to the Middle East as part of a congressional delegation to oversee the upcoming Palestinian elections.
Martinez will also serve on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. He said that was a natural fit since the panel oversees the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he formerly led as a Cabinet secretary. For the immediate future, Martinez said he will use his role on the committee to make sure the federal government helps Floridians recover from the hurricane devastation through housing and community development programs.
In his new post on Energy and Natural Resources, Martinez said he will oppose any efforts for offshore oil drilling near Florida.
But with the departure of Graham, Florida will be losing some of its clout in the Senate. Neither Nelson or Martinez are on the Appropriations or Finance committees, which are considered among the Senate's more influential panels.
Martinez also failed to win an appointment to the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Graham had served on. Graham and Gov. Jeb Bush had lobbied for placing Martinez on the committee since it oversees Florida's ambitious and costly program to restore the Everglades.
Compiled from reports by Joe Follick and Lloyd Dunkelberger of the Sun Tallahassee Bureau.

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