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Sen. Martinez says farewell in final speech

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez left Washington on Wednesday with some regrets, some proud accomplishments and some frustration with a process he believes often puts politics ahead of policy.

Martinez gave a final speech 16 months before his first term was to expire, reflecting to colleagues about the pride of being the first Cuban-American to serve in the Cabinet and the only immigrant in the Senate. He said he regrets an immigration bill he worked on with Sen. Ted Kennedy that didn’t pass, but also talked about the joy of helping achieve the release of a Florida woman imprisoned in Vietnam.

Martinez has said he is leaving the Senate early to spend more time with family in Orlando. After his speech, though, it was clear he was also frustrated with being powerless to create change as a member of the Republican minority and as a senator who has already announced he won’t seek re-election.

“I came here to try to make a difference,” Martinez told The Associated Press. “I believe that once I decided not to run again, that things do change. It becomes more difficult to have a long-term view and it got to the point where I felt like I was more marking time than I was actually making a difference, and I became impatient with that.”

He also said that after being in public service for 12 years, serving as the Orange County chairman, former President George W. Bush’s first housing secretary and then as senator, began to wear on him and his family.

“It was time to return to private life and get back to what I know rather than just be here for a year and a half,” said Martinez, who was a successful trial lawyer before entering politics.