By BETH REINHARD, breinhard@MiamiHerald.com
Eight years ago, the young chairman of the Broward Republican Party appealed to his cohorts to stay out of a divisive petition drive to overturn the county's gay rights law. ``GOP UNITY'' read the banner he unfurled as he walked through a hushed crowd, arguing that the petition would distract from the party's true goal -- electing Republicans.
The young party leader was George LeMieux, tapped by Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday to fill Mel Martinez's unfinished Senate term until the governor can win the post himself in the 2010 election.
The shortcut for a Republican who never won elected office to America's most exclusive political club began in the state's Democratic stronghold. The anti-gay petition drive failed, while LeMieux mobilized a turnout befitting a presidential candidate for Gov. Jeb Bush's reelection. Like Crist, he learned a politically calculated lesson that winning -- not ideology -- is what matters.
Actually the story began a few years earlier, during LeMieux's first and only bid for public office in 1998. LeMieux, 29, took on a popular Democratic incumbent, Tracy Stafford, who had served in one public office or another for two decades.
LeMieux outworked Stafford and nearly matched him dollar for dollar. He knocked on 10,000 doors with the slogan, ``When was the last time your state representative knocked on your door?'' He even sought to peel off support in the district's large gay community by taking positions in favor of gay adoption and health benefits for same-sex couples.
Three weeks before the election, doctors amputated the lower half of Stafford's left leg. Some said LeMieux might have won the race if not for the sympathy fueled rally by Democratic activists around Stafford in the home stretch.
Losing the election was the best thing that ever happened to LeMieux. It freed him up to head the local party and led him to Crist, who took him to Tallahassee in 2002 as his deputy attorney general and made him chief of staff after he became governor.
``And the rest, as they say, is history,'' said Fort Lauderdale attorney Ed Pozzuoli, who preceded LeMieux as chairman of the local party. ``Sometimes you can learn more from disappointments than from successes. George has learned from them all.''
Broward Republicans, outnumbered by Democrats more than 2 to 1, are a special breed. ``God's Country,'' is how LeMieux affectionately refers to the county where he was born and raised.
He may live in Tallahassee now, but as far as Broward Republicans are concerned, he is Florida's first U.S. senator from their home turf. About 125 people gathered in the chambers of Fort Lauderdale City Hall Friday evening to give their ``native son'' a couple of standing ovations.
``This is a monumental day for Broward County to have one of our own with a voice in the Senate and within the corridors of power in the nation's Capitol,'' said Chip LaMarca, the current chairman of the Broward GOP.
But as the hometown cheers fade, the pick starts to feel hollow. Crist looked high and low, approached more than a dozen people from every corner of the state -- from a black state lawmaker in Jacksonville to a Cuban-born former prosecutor in Miami to a retired, veteran congressman in Fort Lauderdale -- and ended up picking the guy who used to work down the hall. Crist's critics immediately accused him of cronyism and assailed LeMieux for profiting from his close ties to the governor.
Voters should also be asking questions about where LeMieux stands. Will he try to explain away the positions he took during his 1998 campaign -- in favor of gay adoption, limits on offshore oil drilling and waiting periods at gun shows? Will he be a seat-warming proxy for Crist or a principled warrior for the people of Florida?
LeMieux will likely heed the lessons he learned in Broward. He'll follow the same politically moderate, occasionally conservative philosophy that's kept Crist popular through a rotten recession. It's also a please-everyone-and-no-one, keep-em'-guessing, say-as-little-as-possible type of politics that rankles Democrats and conservative Republicans to no end.
``I've learned working with this governor that the people want a problem solver,'' LeMieux told the Fort Lauderdale crowd Friday evening. ``And I will seek to be a problem solver in Washington, D.C., and I will do so like this great governor does, with the principle of limited government always on my mind.''
Where does LeMieux go from the U.S. Senate? Probably, anywhere he wants. He could work in the next Republican administration, run for federal or statewide office or prosper in the private sector.
Said Pozzuoli: ``George is very good at moving from one arena to another with tremendous ease and comfort.''
Beth Reinhard is the political writer for The Miami Herald.