Castor in the hot seat

Editor’s note: Repeated attempts to contact the campaign of Republican nominee Mel Martinez went unreturned. If Martinez contacts The Oracle before the Nov. 2 election, his interview will also be published.

Jeff Cavallaro: You’ve been a state education commissioner and the former president of USF. How will you draw on your experiences if elected senator?

Betty Castor: Well, most of my career has been spent in the area of education. My passion for education, and the impact of good education on jobs and the economy is one of the primary reasons that I am seeking this office. So there are a lot of issues, but I bring with me a passion to improve educational opportunity.

JC: With such a close race in the senate brewing this year, how important is it for the Democratic Party that you win on Nov. 2?

BC: I think it is critical. I think the Democrats want very much to keep the seat that has been held by Sen. Graham. In the national perspective this is very important. It is likely that they will pick up some seats, so there is an opportunity here for the Democrats to win control of the U.S. Senate.

JC: How important is it for young adults to be involved in the political process?

BC: It is extremely important, because students and younger people are going to reap the benefits – or pay the price – for any mistakes made by the government. They have more at stake than almost anyone. Today, they do not vote in the same percentages that older voters do, and that’s unfortunate because they are the people who are working hard to get an education themselves.

JC: You have criticized the Bush administration and its No Child Left Behind policy, saying they are driven by “Washington bureaucrats.” What will you do to change this and improve the education system here in Florida?

BC: I think the idea of imposing a federally mandated bureaucratic testing system on every classroom and every student in every school just isn’t working. Today, there are so many unintended consequences; the federal accountability legislation is not consistent with the state education accountability … two-thirds of the schools in the state under state systems are supposed to be A or B schools, while at the same time two-thirds of the schools under the federal accountability are failing schools. Parents are confused and it’s just not a very mutually inclusive system; its not one that is easily understood.

JC: You have said that you will get students and teachers to “master subjects, not tests,” with regards to your education policy. After all of the talk about instituting an FCAT-like test at Florida universities, what is your opinion about standardized testing both in universities and public schools?

BC: I think the idea of establishing an FCAT in universities is ridiculous. I think that it’s an absurd notion. We already have in place enough accountability at the universities. I think it is totally unnecessary and would be very detrimental and, again, another big bureaucratic fix for a problem that doesn’t exist. At the lower school level I think that the idea of having an examination before students leave high school is fair. That idea is OK with me, but to begin this high-stakes testing at the third-grade level and begin retaining students in the third grade is not an educational policy that serves students well, especially in those developmental years.

JC: With tuition rates increasing every year, what will you do to make higher education more affordable?

BC: The first thing we have to do is expand financial aid. I would start with increasing the Pell Grant. In Florida there is a lot of financial aid available for merit scholarships, but there is not nearly as much available for students who don’t fall into that high-merit scholars area. There are a lot of students who work hard, who are good students and who just need to be able to continue to take as many credits as they can so they can graduate earlier. I would also adopt a graduate students’ assistantship program and begin to target some of the professional areas that are critical to our nation’s future.

JC: You have been accused of inaction with regard to the Sami Al-Arian case while you were president of USF. How do you defend your position?

BC: I did what was allowed under the rules of the state university system and the statutes of Florida, and we did take action. We closed down the so-called think tanks. When there were early stories about Al-Arian and his possible ties to terrorist groups, we reached out to the FBI and worked with them during the course of time that I was at the university and ultimately put Mr. Al-Arian on administrative leave, or suspended him. So we did take action. In fact, I was the only one at that time that was dealing with this issue. But it took seven years for the FBI and the Department of Justice to indict him and that was almost four years after I left the university. Meanwhile, he was out campaigning with George W. Bush and even visited the White House three months before 9/11. How can someone who is under suspicion by the FBI have access to the highest levels of government?

JC: How do you intend to help low-income and middle-class families in Florida?

BC: The first thing we have to do is pass the new minimum wage that is on the ballot. There is a proposal to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 by one dollar. I strongly support it and Mr. Martinez, my opponent, opposes it. I am going to support the tax breaks for the middle class and the new tax bracket for lower-income recipients. I am going to be a strong supporter of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I did not support privatizing the Social Security system. And I will work hard to support programs that provide health care coverage for the children of low-income working parents and expand them to include all young people whose families cannot afford health insurance.

JC: Do you think that raising the minimum wage will cause the state to lose jobs?

BC: No, that is sometimes raised as an issue, but there are studies that indicate that it’s not small businesses that are in that default, because small businesses are already paying more than the minimum wage.

JC: There are still 593,000 uninsured children in Florida. What will you do to not only get them covered, but also the millions of other uninsured Floridians?

BC: I actually have a lot of experience with this because I started the Healthy Kids program for Florida, which covers uninsured children of low income and working parents through school districts. Today there are over 300,000 children who have health insurance because of that program. It became a federal program and it’s called the CHIC program (The Children’s Health Insurance program), and it’s a national model that started right here in Florida. I would take that program and expand it. In fact there is already legislation introduced that would provide health insurance. This is for children of the working poor. There would be an income level. It wouldn’t be for everyone, it would be for those low-income parents. Now, at the upper level – the older Americans – I think we need to look at permitting people who retire early to buy into the Medicare program.

JC: What will you do to ensure a safe and sustainable environment in Florida?

BC: The first thing we have to do is enforce the environmental regulations that are already on the books. This administration has been moving in the wrong direction. It has been moving backward in terms of enforcing environmental regulations. It has happened in two specific areas, one in the Clean Air Act where the administration has relaxed the clean air regulations and enforcements. And also it has moved in the wrong direction in terms of the wetlands protection here in Florida. I think there is a lot more we can do in the area of research and coastal requirements. Just before I left USF, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed me to chair the Florida Committee on the Ocean, which was a project of the national government to try to come up with better enforcement and better regulatory methods for protecting our coastlines and oceans. So I have a lot of interest. Of course, restoration of the Everglades … and making sure that there is no offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

JC: The Bush administration stated that it would be realigning hundreds of thousands of troops worldwide over the next decade. How do you propose to protect Florida’s military bases and keep them open?

BC: Florida has some of the most important military bases. For instance, MacDill Air Force Base is the home of Central Command as well as the Special Forces Command. The Southern Command, which is the headquarters for the hemispheric command, is in Miami. Also, the bases here in Florida are extremely important not only because of their military significance but because they contribute so much to our economy in Florida.

JC: What separates you from your opponent Mel Martinez?

BC: I think he has some very extreme positions. He came out of his primary after running a campaign against Bill McCollum by resorting to some tactics that I thought were very unfortunate, like debating his opponent and opposing McCollum because (McCollum) voted for hate crimes legislation, which I happen to think is very important. So I am going to take the high road in this campaign. But there are just so many areas – I don’t support vouchers for using public funds for private education, he does. I support expansion of stem cell research; he doesn’t. I support the right of choice and will work hard to preserve Roe vs. Wade; he’s on the other side of that. I am for the minimum wage increase; he’s against it. I am against privatizing Social Security; he’s for it. But I think number one, I have been involved in public life in Florida for 30 years, and I think my experience and my depth and knowledge of the state is the key issue and will serve me well in this campaign.