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Nancy Smith

Martin County Still Remembers George LeMieux's Screw-Up

October 21, 2010 - 6:00pm

Somebody forgot to remind George LeMieux what a drink of toxic Kool Aid he is to some folks in Martin County.

The nearly done U.S. senator looking for love and probably money to juice a 2012 run at Democrat Bill Nelsons Senate seat somehow got himself invited to a luncheon Wednesday sponsored jointly by the Stuart/Martin County and Palm City chambers of commerce.

Invited into the room, yes, but into Martin County hearts? That might be a stretch.

Fewer than 100 people showed up. Martin chambers get more people than that for a 7 a.m. breakfast the day after the Super Bowl.

Allow me to tell you what might have gone wrong for the senator.

George LeMieux and Martin County have a history.

In March 2009 when he was chairman of the Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart law firm, LeMieux was invited to speak to the Economic Council of Martin County.

The speech he gave that day was quite the showstopper.

It would be picked up by news organizations across Florida and beyond. In fact, I found out about it when I read my local newspaper -- and at the time, I was living in Mississippi.

In his speech, LeMieux -- former chief of staff and campaign manager for Gov. Charlie Crist --an executive in an 85-year-old company that bills itself as "Florida's law firm for business," told Martin business and civic leaders that their Treasure Coast county of 140,000 people will be home to 1 million people by 2029.

One million people.

"Everything south of Interstate 4 is going to be filled up with people," LeMieux announced. But no place in South Florida will be "filled up" at a higher rate than Martin County.

"If you aren't smart, you're just going to have sprawl all the way to your county border," he said. "So why don't you create greenways from the east side of your county to the west side of your county. And you'll use them for trails and public use ... so go buy the land now, before you can't."

Talk about inciting panic.

If you know anything at all about Martin County -- and, clearly, George LeMieux, who came to town as something of an authority, should have but didn't -- you know growth paranoia is easily its most common disease.

This is the county, remember, that said no to Major League Baseball in the 1980s because "if you build it, they will come." It said no to a bought-and-paid-for state park on the beach at St. Lucie Inlet for the same reason. And Martin is still the toughest county in Florida to get roads or bridges OK'd or airport improvements or business development incentives approved.

Try to imagine what a tizzy LeMieux's careless words created in a place where, year after year -- recession or boom, developers in or developers out -- the population grows by anywhere from 1.5 percent to 2 percent.

Now, the business community figured it out pretty quickly -- LeMieux had screwed up bigtime. Those folks could do the math: A population of 140,000 in 2009, growing to 1 million ... let's see. That's a 35 percent increase every year for 20 years.

Pretty preposterous.

Trouble is, it took community leaders months, long after LeMieux had moved on, to convince the no-growth proponents and the people they frighten with their malarkey, that the sky isn't falling after all and Martin County business policy is not an enemy of the county's long history of slow, controlled growth.

LeMieux, the no-growthers told the business community, was your expert. Yours. You brought him in. Now you tell us he's that far wrong?

Well, yes he was.

I must admit, the folks who attended Wednesday's luncheon were fairly forgiving. Certainly they were gracious and hospitable, as Martin Countians are to a fault -- even when LeMieux was reminded of his previous speech and made light of it.

But there were some who did not attend, not because they had a prior commitment or because they'd been to enough luncheons in October, but because they were still smarting over LeMieux's sloppy preparation in March 2009, over his carelessness in delivering an address that could cause so much upset for so many.

As one business owner told me Thursday, "Some of us -- I'd say, quite a few of us -- just decided to stage a little boycott. This man (LeMieux) wants to be a senator again in two years. We're Republicans, conservatives like he is. We want him to be successful. But we also want him to learn that with his powerful position should come a responsibility to think about the effect his words have.

"He wasn't prepared. He didn't do his homework. How are you going to be a senator like that?

"I'll probably always be suspicious of him, even after I've voted for him."

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859. Smith spent nearly 28 years in Martin County, from 1977 to December 2004. During that time she served as city editor, managing editor and associate editor of The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News.

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