July 23, 2014

Cover Story: Next Move

Climbing the Hill

Sen. George LeMieux has a lot bigger agenda than warming a seat for whoever is elected to the Senate in November

Amy Keller | 9/1/2010

Republican Sen. George LeMieux has made himself at home in his office on the third floor of the Russell Senate Office Building. Among the assorted mementos and family pictures is a crayon drawing made by his son, Max, tacked to the wall behind his desk. Hanging near the fireplace is a framed sketch of LeMieux arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the state of Florida.


LeMieux calls his senatorial stint "the best job I ever had."? [Photo: Katherine Lambert]
There's also something of more recent vintage, however — a framed copy of an official Senate vote tally on Amendment No. 3774. The amendment removed references to credit rating agencies from federal laws, eliminating the government's reliance on agencies like Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor's in determining the standards of creditworthiness. Hardly landmark legislation, but its passage (61-38) earlier this year represented a coup for LeMieux. Few freshmen senators accomplish even that little legislatively in their first year, let alone a freshman Republican lawmaker facing a Democratic majority in a highly partisan political climate.

"George stepped right in here and came up to speed quicker than any appointed senator in the time I've been here," says Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a 25-year veteran of the Senate.

A year ago, when Mel Martinez quit the Senate, Gov. Charlie Crist's appointment of LeMieux to that seat generated a combination of yawns and rolled eyes. Democrats and Republicans alike saw LeMieux, Crist's longtime friend, adviser and former chief of staff, as the ultimate safe choice — as the person least likely to do anything that would make Crist squirm politically, and the least likely to draw attention from Crist's own quest for the job. U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Ocala) scoffed that LeMieux was just a "placeholder" for Crist.

But even before Crist left the Republican Party, LeMieux had begun going about the job in a way that reflected independence from Crist — and increasingly reflects his own ambitions.

Legislatively, LeMieux became active within weeks of arriving in Washington. As the Senate grappled with healthcare reform, he introduced his first piece of legislation, the "Prevent Health Care Fraud Act of 2009." The bill aimed to crack down on Medicare and Medicaid fraud by using the same predictive modeling technology that credit card companies use to flag unusual transactions.

The bulk of LeMieux's
voting record has been predictably conservative. While he has reached across party lines, Democrats say he does little more than 'vote no' on their agenda.

The bill didn't get anywhere during the healthcare debate, but LeMieux was able to include the modeling provisions in a $30-billion small-business lending bill that the Senate took up in July.

Meanwhile, away from the Senate floor, the "placeholder" beefed up his visibility. In addition to the usual menu of helping senior citizens navigate the Social Security or Veterans Administration bureaucracies, LeMieux, a low-key type, embraced the rah-rah, retail-politics aspects of the job. He coupled appearances promoting local job fairs aimed at getting Floridians back to work with a move that turned a portion of his official Senate website into a one-stop, virtual shop for job seekers. That tactic got the attention of McConnell, who told other Republican lawmakers they ought to replicate his efforts.

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