george-lemieux_web.jpgWASHINGTON (AP) — George LeMieux is Florida's newest senator.

LeMieux was sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden Thursday afternoon, replacing Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.

LeMieux took his oath after having a policy meeting with his staff and lunch with his wife.

He took the office one day after watching Martinez give his farewell speech. Martinez later introduced LeMieux to his new Republican colleagues at a Senate lunch.

LeMieux said he is willing to listen and learn as the Senate takes up issues like a major health care overhaul.

LeMieux was appointed by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. He is Crist's former chief of staff and the governor's closest political adviser.

On Wednesday, LeMieux watched Martinez's farewell speech from the public gallery overlooking the floor where he would represent 18 million Floridians.

While Thursday was a historic day for LeMieux, he hasn't arrived here without criticism. He has been called a placeholder for Crist, who critics say picked a loyal friend over more qualified candidates. His law firm, Gunster, has also been more closely scrutinized, including the state contracts it has received since LeMieux left his job as Crist's chief of staff and returned to the firm
in January 2008.

The firm billed the state Department of Transportation nearly $3 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, up nearly $2 million from the previous fiscal year. The fiscal year before LeMieux became chairman of the firm, it received no state payments, according to the state Department of Financial Services. The year before that, it earned more than $4.4 million in state business.

Two Senate candidates, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek, have criticized LeMieux's appointment because Gunster helped secure visas for foreign sheet metal workers for a South Florida construction project. The firm has said that only four of its 140 lawyers practice immigration law and LeMieux isn't one of them.

And the pick isn't sitting well with some of the most conservative Republicans, who see LeMieux as a moderate, like Crist.

Still, many who have worked with LeMieux, including Democrat Rep. Robert Wexler and Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who served as attorney general and as Crist's child welfare secretary, have praised him for his intelligence and integrity.

While Crist and LeMieux are nearly identical politically and on policy, LeMieux is the person who can talk about both with greater depth. He has had a strong hand in shaping and achieving Crist's accomplishments.

Martinez assured his colleagues in his farewell speech Wednesday that LeMieux is a good pick to replace him.

"In George LeMieux, you will have a very fine person," Martinez said.

And after listening to senators from both parties praise Martinez for his knowledge and experience, LeMieux acknowledged he will have to measure up to the job.

"I do have big shoes to fill. He set a very high standard that I will work hard to uphold every day and my goal will be to earn the trust and respect of my colleagues and earn the trust and respect of the people of Florida," LeMieux said.

LeMieux also said he realizes the decisions the Senate makes during his short time there could have a huge, long-lasting impact on the country and that he will begin his job by listening and learning.

Photo: George LeMieux