WASHINGTON (Aug. 4)
A Jewish congressman seeking the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida is accusing his opponent of being soft on terrorists in her backyard. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) has focused his campaign against Betty Castor in part on her actions as president of the University of South Florida from 1994 to 1999, and on whether she allowed an ally of the Islamic Jihad to operate a front for the terrorist group on campus.
Castor, who also served as the state’s education commissioner, has been fighting back, saying she did everything she legally could to prevent the spread of teachers with links to terror at the school. Her arguments have earned her the endorsement of at least one Florida Jewish newspaper.
Deutsch hopes the issue will cast doubt on Castor’s leadership abilities in the minds of voters, particularly Jews. An observant Jew, the congressman also has been reaching out to his base by spending Shabbat in differ! ent synagogues across the state, giving several lectures on the issues of the day.
While less than 4 percent of Florida’s population is Jewish, the Jewish community traditionally has played a large role in state politics, gathering enormous attention during the presidential election recount four years ago.
In an election year where control of the Senate is considered in play, Florida is a key battleground in the presidential race, and an active senatorial race could be a factor in changing the political landscape in Washington.
Castor currently leads Deutsch by more than 16 percentage points ahead of the Aug. 31 primary, according to a poll taken late last month by Mason-Dixon.
Alex Pinelas, mayor of Miami-Dade County, also is in the race but trails Deutsch by double digits.
The winner of the Democratic primary will take on the winner of the Republican primary, most likely either former Rep. Bill McCollum or Mel Martinez, the former U.S. secretary of hou! sing and urban development.
Deutsch says Castor is unelectable in November because of her ties to USF. While she led the school, Sami Al-Arian, a computer science professor at its main campus in Tampa, ran a think tank called the World and Islam Enterprise, or WISE, that raised money for Islamic militants. The think tank brought one professor to the school who eventually went on to head the Islamic Jihad terrorist group in Damascus.
Deutsch and his supporters say Castor should have fired Al-Arian when she received affidavits about his activities, or at least should have launched a thorough investigation.
“She had the information and did nothing,” Deutsch told JTA last week in Boston, where he was attending the Democratic National Convention. “Evil was in her midst and she did nothing.”
The accusations have been fostered predominantly by the American Democracy Project, an independent group that largely is funded by Deutsch supporters. The group has attacked Castor with print advertisements about Al-Arian.
“All of the inform! ation together provides compelling documentation that the campus was being used as a front for the Islamic Jihad terrorist group without a challenge from the university,” said the group’s treasurer, Bernie Friedman.
Castor’s campaign counters that she suspended Al-Arian and cut ties with the think tank when she learned the FBI was investigating Al-Arian. She also had a former president of the American Bar Association investigate Al-Arian, but the investigation concluded that the university made only small blunders in its relationship with the think tank.
Friedman dismisses the investigation, saying it didn’t delve into the off-campus activities of Al-Arian or think-tank officials.
Castor aides say FBI and Department of Justice officials did not provide information to the school that would have been grounds for firing Al-Arian, and that is why he eventually returned to the school.
Al-Arian was reinstated as a professor a year before Castor left the school, an! d was dismissed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Al -Arian later was indicted on terrorism charges, and his trial is set to begin in January.
“It took seven years for the FBI to have the information to indict Al-Arian,” Castor spokesman Matt Burgess said.
The campaign notes that Al-Arian campaigned for President Bush in 2000, and was able to pass clearances to visit the White House in 2001.
Castor’s handling of the Al-Arian case has received accolades from Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), whom the candidates are seeking to replace. It also has won the support of the Jewish Journal of South Florida, which endorsed Castor last week.
The editors said Deutsch was unfairly holding Castor accountable for the Al-Arian situation, and compared his heavy-handed campaign tactics to those of former President Richard Nixon.
The paper’s endorsement is significant, considering that Deutsch has been campaigning actively in Jewish communities. He plans to spend every Shabbat this month in a synagogue in a different community, pray! ing with constituents and giving lectures.
Deutsch said he will be speaking as a member of Congress, not campaigning, as houses of worship are prohibited from supporting candidates for office.
“I know where the line is, so I don’t walk the fine line,” he said.