Tampa's Martinez: what GOP convention staff was looking for

Bob Martinez was just the type of person that President Reagan and the people planning the Republican National Convention were looking for: He has a Hispanic surname; he is the popular mayor of a large city in a key state; and he's a Republican.

And Tampa, Fla., Mayor Martinez is not just any Republican. He switched to the party within the last year, even though the voters in his city and state are predominantly registered Democrats. And he has ambitions of running for governor.

When Republican organizers shuffled their list of convention speakers early in August to highlight more women and minorities at their Dallas convention, they came up with Mr. Martinez's name as someone to speak for the cities.

Martinez was asked to ''speak as a mayor'' and explain what the Reagan presidency has meant for the cities and how government and free enterprise can work together without federal help.

While Martinez would not reveal what he was going to say to the convention, he said he switched to the Republican Party because ''of its economic policy and because growing expenditures in government always seemed to whet the appetite of the Democrats to want more.

''I never had reason to look at my political philosophy before I was elected mayor,'' said Martinez, whose nonpartisan race for mayor in 1979 was his first foray into politics.

''But as I began to manage the city,'' he said, ''I saw how much money was spent on things that shouldn't be a part of government. As time went on, I felt comfortable with Reagan's viewpoint of limiting the role of government.''

The mayor said he cut the number of city employees by about 1,000 by eliminating duplicate efforts and by turning over some services, such as garbage collection, to private companies.

He reduced the city's property tax rate by 44 percent, and while the cost of some services has gone up, he says that in 1985 the total cost of city government for the average homeowner will be less than it was in 1980.

Being a Republican gives Martinez a better shot at running for governor in 1986. Even though he has not officially declared, he is widely known to be interested in the job.

Securing the Republican nomination would probably be easier than winning the Democratic bid, and while the voters have elected a Republican governor only once since reconstruction, they often vote Republican in presidential elections.

Other Democrats recently have been switching to the Republican Party in Florida, including US Rep. Andy Ireland.

Martinez is a third-generation Hispanic in Tampa. His grandparents were from Spain, he says, and as a boy he often spent time with his grandmother while his parents worked during the Depression.

He was a social-studies teacher for five years, and after receiving a master's degree in labor and industrial relations, he became president of the Hillsborough County Classroom Teachers Association. Later, he opened his own restaurant.

While he speaks English with a slight Spanish accent, Martinez does not speak Spanish fluently, however, and Latin leaders say he has not taken an active role in Hispanic affairs in the city.

But Martinez has always received broad support in the Hispanic community, and his switch to the Republican Party apparently has not hurt him, especially among Cubans who have come here since Castro's revolution.

''He's well received in the Latin community, but there has appeared to be some restraint on his part, probably because he has many more Anglo traits than Latin,'' says a leader in Tampa's Cuban community. ''But becoming a Republican has helped him, because most Cubans like Reagan's strong stand against Castro,'' he added.

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