Back On The Hustings: Castor Still A Favorite

For 63-year-old Betty Castor, the pinnacle political campaign of her life — running for U.S. senator — unfolded in several critical stages.

* In her position as president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, she did a lot of lobbying — and a lot of traveling. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 “traveling became prohibitive,” acknowledges Castor.

*Then the former Florida Commissioner of Education was appalled at what she was seeing back in Tallahassee. Most notably, the Legislature was reducing the number of credits needed for high school graduation. Graduates could even opt out of government and U.S. history. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t people enraged?'” recalls Castor.

*When her daughter, Kathy Castor, won election to the Hillsborough County Commission, Betty Castor looked like more than a proud parent. She was. She was a political icon who was reminded how much she missed being a player. “The whole process is infectious,” concedes Castor. “There is an excitement about it.”

*An ill-fated run for the presidency and heart surgery would force the hand of incumbent Senator Bob Graham. When Graham, who is completing his third term, wavered on running for re-election, Castor took heed — and action. “Once you open that (re-election doubt) door and think about it, it becomes more plausible, possible,” explains Castor. Then a Castor-commissioned poll showed that although she hadn’t run for office in more than a dozen years, she still had encouraging name recognition statewide.

By last summer, she had taken the plunge — and a pledge: that she would bow out if the revered Graham ultimately decided to run for re-election. Graham hedged his bets until late October. It was an awkward time for the Castor campaign.

“It was difficult,” says Castor. “I was saying, in effect, to groups: ‘I’m the best candidate, I think.'”

It helped that internal polls continued to show promising name-recognition numbers, an occurrence that came as no shock, notes Castor. She felt her five-plus USF presidency years, a period of unprecedented growth, had kept her profile high — including across the I-4 Corridor. It also had afforded her “the opportunity to be non-partisan,” she emphasizes.

What she didn’t have, however, was a lot of money. “For the working press, money equals credibility,” points out Castor.

That’s why she made the overture to EMILY’s List, the political fund-raising group that supports Democratic, pro-choice women. EMILY’s List signed on and has made numerous contributions — including more than a third of the $1.5 million the Castor campaign raised from April to June.

So how has candidate Castor fared being back on the hustings for the first time in 14 years? Most observers agree that Castor — more than three decades removed from her historic, first-female election to the county commission — hasn’t lost her podium skills, can still “work a room” and remains unflappable under pressure. She’s retained her middle-of-the-road political compass.

The various forums and the statewide debate with her major Democratic primary rivals, 40-somethings U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Hollywood and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, have had their “intense” moments, Castor concedes. But on balance, they’ve been exercises in discipline. She comes across as the above-the-fray adult between a street-fighting congressman and a slick, smart-aleck mayor.

“You need to look professional and sensible,” Castor points out. “Don’t go out there looking for dramatics. And try to stay on message — education, jobs, healthcare — although the process can get in the way.

“What really did surprise me, though, was the intensity of the (Bernie) Friedman attack,” states Castor. Friedman, a friend of Deutsch’s, formed the American Democracy Project, which has hammered Castor over Sami Al-Arian, the indicted, incarcerated former USF professor with alleged ties to terrorists.

“We had no doubt that it would be an issue,” says Castor. “We were prepared — but not for a separate group. We’ve constantly been ahead in the polls, and the only way they could get my ratings down was to attack. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The polls consistently say I’m still ahead.”

“Centrist Democrat”

“Betty Castor is one of the very few people who could pull this off,” avers John Belohlavek, a USF historian and political consultant, “although she’s not exactly re-emerging from obscurity. She’s a centrist, Democratic woman, and the South will vote for a woman if you give them a moderate. She really fits the Askew, Chiles, Graham progressive model. Plus her opponents will split the vote in South Florida.

“I’m not surprised she is where she is,” underscores Belohlavek. “She’s a very quick study. Now she has to stay on the high road and not alienate the losers.”

Castor’s core message remains education-jobs-healthcare — along with a corollary of veterans’ benefits. She acknowledges there are those who ask, and not necessarily rhetorically, “What does she know?” when it comes to foreign affairs. That can be code for national security.

She knows what she didn’t know and does her homework, which includes a daily reading from the 9/11 commission report, which she feels has “hit it on the head.” She’s particularly adamant about the “demand for more cooperation among agencies.”

Her security and war positions tend to be moderate — and safe. She supports the Patriot Act — but not all its provisions. She would not have voted for the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq — if we knew then what we know now about the rationale for so doing. She is, not unlike everyone else, a strong supporter of the men and women in America’s armed forces. She’s pushing for a Military Families Bill of Rights and agrees with John Kerry’s plan to add 40,000 troops to “relieve the burden on our overstretched military as well as National Guard and Reserves.” She would also like to see a significant increase — even doubling — of Special Operations. She would not “draw a line in the sand” by agreeing to an arbitrary troop-withdrawal schedule in Iraq.

She also implores the U.S. to get better at attacking the roots of terrorism. She sees education as a key weapon. “We need to do a better job of teaching about other cultures,” she posits. “And it’s a tragedy there are so few Arabic speakers.”

As to our allies, notably the Europeans, she stresses the importance of America “trying harder to restore faith and confidence.” She also urges “a little more humility when looking at the rest of the world.”

Castor seems unflinching in “continuing our support for Israel.” She is much more nuanced about backing the Saudi Royal Family: “We need to explore our relationship over time.”

On Cuba, Castor is “totally opposed” to the latest restrictions on travel and remittances. They’re “not humanitarian,” she says, and they “won’t topple Castro.” As to the ongoing economic embargo, per se? “It could be examined,” she notes equivocally.

Given a slew of major newspaper endorsements and recommendations, her double-digit lead in the polls — and the fact that her opponents share the same South Florida media market — should bode well for Castor in next week’s primary. And being the lone female hardly hurts.

The Castor campaign also has maintained its fund-raising momentum: most recently netting $625,000 in the July 1-Aug. 12 period — compared to Deutsch’s $225,000 and Penelas’ $100,000. Overall, Castor has raised $4.4 million; Deutsch, $5 million; and Penelas, $3.5 million.

After Tuesday (Aug. 31), the stakes will escalate, the GOP hitmen will target Florida and the really big money will pour in — as if very control of the Senate were riding on this senate race. It just may.

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