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George Lemieux named Florida's new senator

Gov. Charlie Crist entered the hushed Senate chambers of the Old Capitol at 11:36 a.m. to introduce his longtime confidante George LeMieux as Florida's new junior U.S. senator. The room erupted in a standing ovation as the pair reached the front of the room. "Are you surprised?" Crist asked as he walked past.

LeMieux replaces Mel Martinez, who is resigning with about 16 months remaining in his term. His wife Meike entered first with their three sons, Max, Taylor and Chase. The choice is not a major surprise, and it will focus new questions about LeMieux's advocacy on issues such as gambling and his law firm's legal work for the state.

The new senator said it is his love of Florida and his sons' future "that make me relish this honor and relish the work ahead."

Calling LeMieux a dedicated public servant and "a great man," Crist said: "He will serve well. He has even argued a case before the United States Supreme Court ... his public service is extraordinary."

"I'm happy for my friend and I'm extremely happy for my state," Crist said. The two men embraced as

Crist briefly paid tribute to the nine other contenders for the Senate seat. "I want to thank all the wonderful people who went through this process," Crist said. "This is a grueling thing to do."

The historic and high-ceilinged chamber was packed with Crist staff members, legislative staffers, some lobbyists and Republican Party employees, including chairman Jim Greer. 

LeMieux, a 40-year-old lawyer, served as Crist's chief of staff in his first year as governor, as chairman of his campaign for governor in 2006, and as deputy attorney general and chief of staff during the four years Crist was Florida's attorney general. The two men forged a political partnership in the late 1990s when LeMieux was chairman of the Broward County Republican Party and Crist was running for the U.S. Senate.

Crist could face criticism for appointing a political insider who has never held elective office, and a man who strongly encouraged Crist to negotiate a deal that expanded gambling on Seminole Indian reservations. As Washington insiders know, LeMieux was instrumental in Crist's decision to avoid appearing with President Bush on Election Eve 2006 in Pensacola, a decision that infuriated Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove.

-- Steve Bousquet