Political Planets Seem Aligned For Castor

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor, the favorite to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Davis in Congress, is an interesting study. Actually, an intriguing composite.

She has, of course, that pedigreed name: her mom, Betty Castor, is a political icon. She has the look: 40-year-old cute, winsome yet wholesome. She has the smile: winning. She has the family portrait: photogenic husband and two daughters. She has the demeanor: serious but friendly, unflappable but approachable — energetic but not melodramatic.

Growing up, Castor recalls, she “always loved public policy.” Presumably, ponies, puppets and dress-ups also made the short list.

The young Patty Duke could have played the lead in a Kathy Castor bio pic.

More to the point, she has the budget: $1 million — that no one else in the District 11 race can match. Collectively. She has the orientation: regional – not parochial. She’s had the lead in every poll. She’s the only female in a five-candidate primary. She has strong cross-over appeal among blacks and Hispanics in a district that is hardly diversity challenged. She even has the right adversary: Ronda Storms, local Democrats’ Darth Vader.

She’s been known to play hardball behind the scenes – as with the orchestration of a county commission turnout big enough to convince enough commissioners to finally vote to increase an unconscionably low impact fee for new residential construction.

She was also savvy enough to work into the circle of Democratic Congressman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which covers, among other things, aviation, ports, pipelines, railroads and economic development. Castor was part of a group that recently squired Oberstar around key Tampa facilities. And, yes, Castor would dearly love to be appointed to that committee. And, yes, stranger things have happened than an opposition party reclaiming Congress. Ask Newt Gingrich, not just Nancy Pelosi.

Castor has core issues: from family-friendly health and education advocacy to environmental stewardship to ethical overhaul to withdrawal from Iraq that resonate especially well in a safe, heavily Democratic district. A district, by the way, that includes a sizable chunk of her county commission District 1. A district – including Tampa, the U.S. 41 corridor in southern Hillsborough, south St. Petersburg and a sliver of northern Manatee County — where Betty Castor won 65 per cent of the vote in her 2004 U.S. Senate race against Mel Martinez.

The political planets seem aligned for the Sept. 5 primary, which is really the de facto general election.

So what’s the homestretch strategy? Some consultants advocate playing it as if you’re behind and working that much harder.

“I disagree with that,” says Castor’s campaign manager, Clay Phillips. “When you do that you start changing what doesn’t need to be changed. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

Which has meant a constant cycle of challenging logistics — bouncing among county commission meetings, constituent gatherings at local libraries, congressional campaign forums and fund-raising events. Which also meant a recent working lunch — and a food-for-thought media interview — sandwiched between a downtown Florida KidCare news conference and a growth management meeting at USF.

“Voice of the people”

Castor has earned a reputation as the patron saint of wetlands and seniors confused about the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. She’s also been a frequent county commission vehicle of dissent — sometimes the only one — on high-profile issues ranging from a proposed beltway (“precious dollars going to a sprawling roadway”) to a $40 million amateur sports complex (“so many other pressing needs”).

If she has a mantra, it would probably be “voice of the people” or “reformer.” As in protecting the less powerful against special interests, typically defined by their financial heft and political clout. In effect, if it’s big, Castor is looking askance at it. To wit: Big Oil, Big Utilities, Big Pharmaceuticals, Big HMOs, Big Insurance, Big Developers, Big Lobbyists. Not unlike “tax cuts for the richest Americans,” it’s a winner, Big Time, in District 11.

She prefaces comments on immigration reform with acknowledgements that the Tampa Bay area has always “valued diversity” and economic sectors such as tourism and agriculture have long been reliant on immigrant labor. She wants “adequate slots” for guest workers. She supports increased border security, but not blanket amnesty or “cutting in line.”

As for Iraq, Castor says it has long passed the political tipping point. “That was some time ago,” she states, “when it became clear we were misled by the president, Rumsfeld and Cheney.”

While she’s not about to put a precise timetable on troop withdrawal, she’s all about getting soldiers out of Iraq and “changing course.”

“America’s forces should be downsized this year and either repositioned outside Iraq or brought home,” she says in a position paper. “Overall, America must execute a more intelligent national security policy to address threats from around the globe by coupling America’s military might with moral authority.”

Castor is comfortable with a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest. Call it a contemporary, customized Marshall Plan. “In Congress, I will support a long-term political and economic strategy for changing the biased and squalid conditions that breed fundamental extremism.”

She also supports talking to anyone. From North Korea to Iran to Syria to Cuba.

That includes a “new dialogue” with Cuba. But it doesn’t include unilaterally ending the economic embargo. “I’m not sure it’s not Fidel and the cadre in control who are benefiting – not the people,” she explains.

Castor, however, is less interested in talking when it comes to the possibility of drilling closer to Florida’s Gulf coast for oil or natural gas.

“I’m not interested in any compromises,” she stresses. “It’s short sighted. It puts our fishing and tourist economies at risk as well as the natural environment. There’s a perception that it could help lead to lower prices. That’s not true. It’s just the wrong way to go.”

Outtakes

*Her name: “It’s an advantage, to be sure. But it also means people have very high expectations. And don’t forget my dad (retired County Court Judge Don Castor) and his (‘Save Our Bay’) efforts to help clean up the bay.”

*Fundraising: “We can improve on campaign finance reform. But we have to play by the rules as they are now. It’s an early measure of credibility. It’s important for momentum.”

*Congressman Jim Davis: “Jim Davis has stayed in touch. My approach would be similar. You have to keep your ear to the ground on local issues.”

*Her successor: “(Democrat) Mary (Mulhern) would make a very good commissioner. I also have respect for (Republican) Rose (Ferlita). We’ll see.”

*Labels: “There’s a need for independent voices in Washington now. There’s a need to stand up for real people, however you want to word that. I mean, not paving over every single inch of land sounds pretty conservative to me.”

*Hillsborough County Commission: “I’ve been around boards all my life. I’ve never seen that type of behavior. Long term issues don’t get prioritized. As for the ‘us-vs.-them (city vs. county)’ matter, I don’t understand it. It’s not rational.”

*Lesson learned: “You just have to persevere. As in the final impact-fee (increase) vote. We needed to get support from teachers and parents and get a big turnout. That’s what it took.”

*County mayor: “It’s a good idea. This is a large, growing county. We need a leader to guide us through regional issues.”

Postscript

You would think most congressional rookies and wannabes, in their heart of hearts, would be somewhat deterred or even a tad intimidated by the prospect of America’s ultimate power corridors and agenda-filled backrooms. And let’s not forget the for
eboding atmosphere fostered by divisive demagoguery and the political pandering that is ripping at our democratic fabric.

Quite possibly, however, that won’t be Castor’s take if she wins.

That’s because in an ironic, perverse way her experience with that mother of all dysfunctional bodies, the Hillsborough County Commission, may have prepared her well for whatever awaits in Washington. To an unlikely crew member on the partisanship of fools, the U.S. House of Representatives may look downright deliberative.

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