The United States Senate race in Florida is being roiled by allegations that the leading Democratic candidate failed to act strongly enough against a suspected terrorist.
Democratic front-runner Betty Castor is being slammed for failing to dismiss and speak out against computer science professor Sami Al-Arian during Castor’s tenure as president of University of South Florida from 1993 to 1999. Al-Arian, an Arab American, eventually was dismissed in 2003, after he was indicted on racketeering charges stemming from his alleged role as a leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad. He now sits in jail, awaiting trial.
While Castor suspended the tenured professor for two years, she later reinstated him when no indictment was forthcoming. Castor, who is leading primary opponents Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Pinellas by double digits in polls, vigorously defends her conduct in the case, saying that the authorities did not give her enough evidence to fire Al-Arian.
“We worked with the FBI, we did everything we could to ensure the safety of the campus. We reached out to the law enforcement community. I even suspended this guy,” Castor, a centrist Democrat who is a former state education commissioner, said in an interview with News Channel 10.
That line of defense has failed to mollify her critics, who maintain that she should have acted more forcefully once Al-Arian became the subject of an FBI probe in the mid 1990s, after he was identified by a documentary and by news reports as an alleged leader of Islamic Jihad. Among Castor’s critics is Bernie Friedman, a friend of Deutsch, Castor’s chief rival in the August 31 Democratic primary.
Friedman has established an organization, the American Democracy Project, which is arguing that Castor “failed literally every test of leadership” in regard to Al-Arian. The group maintains a Web site, castortruth.com, that seeks to make the case that, in the words of terrorism researcher Steven Emerson,
“Evidence was offered to the University [during 1995-1996] showing that a radical Islamic cell had been implanted in their midst, but the [Castor] administration preferred to ignore the evidence.”
The controversy could have ramifications in the hard-fought primary. Pundits say that the issue might shave a few points from Castor’s support in the Jewish community. It is not clear, however, that raising it helps Deutsch, a Bronx-born Jewish politician known for his abrasive style and who is not popular outside of his liberal base in South Florida.
“Women don’t like him beating up on [Castor] like this,” University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said. “I’d be interested to see how this is playing with older Jewish women.”
In a measure of how the issue is playing overall, Senator Bob Graham, the retiring lawmaker whom Deutsch and Castor are seeking to succeed, defended Castor publicly, saying she “acted appropriately.”
Deutsch’s communications director, Roy Teicher, acknowledged that the American Democracy Project was formed to counter the participation in Castor’s campaign of the feminist fund-raising powerhouse EMILY’s List, but said there was no coordination between the campaign and Friedman’s group. He declined to speculate on whether Friedman’s efforts would hurt or help Deutsch.
Teicher told the Forward that the campaign finds some aspects of Castor’s handling of the affair “troubling.”
“We understand how in technical terms of human resources, strict guidelines of tenure, why she could not summarily fire him,” Teicher said, “but nothing prevented her from speaking out about what he said, of his associations, and to express some public outrage.”
Deutsch told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board that he wishes Friedman’s group “didn’t exist,” although he added that Castor did “nothing” to confront Al-Arian on campus and he challenged her contention that she did not have enough information from law enforcement.
Friedman, a lawyer and lobbyist who has many Jewish communal ties, insists his group has no ties to Deutsch and is not designed to further Deutsch’s candidacy at Castor’s expense.
“It’s not politics as usual…. I don’t work for Peter Deutsch. I care about this issue…. I’m not going to stop for anybody,” he told the Forward.
Friedman said he established the group because people need “to learn from what went wrong” so that “other universities, other states are on notice that leaders will be held accountable if Islamic terrorists take over secretly these academic institutions.”
It is unclear whether, if Castor wins the primary, her Republican opponent will make an issue of Al-Arian. Former Rep. Bill McCollum, a conservative who is leading the GOP field, has signaled that he would. But former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, the White House’s pick, has sounded more reticent.
That may be because President Bush has had dealings with Al-Arian: The professor campaigned with him in Florida in 2000 and was invited to the White House several times afterward — once to meet with Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, according to press reports. Bush took up a cause — opposition to the use of secret evidence — championed by Al-Arian, mentioning it in a debate with then-vice president Gore and using it to win the majority of the Arab-American vote in America. Al-Arian boasted after the election that he had delivered Florida’s Muslim vote to the GOP candidate.
A Web site, castorfacts.com, which Castor’s campaign has erected to combat Friedman’s group, details the Bush/Al-Arian contacts. Castor’s aides say that if she is attacked by Republicans on the issue, they won’t hesitate to respond in kind.
“It’s totally unfair to attack Betty for suspending al-Arian when George Bush was campaigning with the guy,” Castor consultant Doug Hattaway said. “It’s hard for the Republicans to make an attack of this when George Bush has a bigger al-Arian problem…. If the Republicans try to make an issue of it, you can bet your bottom dollar Bush won’t have a free ride.”
Some in the organized Jewish community who were involved in the affair clearly fault Castor’s handling of it. The director of Tampa’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Michael Eisenstadt, said: “At the time when all this went down, there were many people disappointed that there was nothing permanent done to Sami Al-Arian.” He added that some “came away feeling patronized” by the lawyer whom Castor had chosen to report to the university on Al-Arian’s activities and formulate its response. “There was definitely frustration among CRC members and others involved in the situation,” he said.
Not every Jew involved in the issue took that view, however. Steven Tauber, an assistant professor of government and international affairs at the University of San Francisco, said he strongly supported Al-Arian’s right to remain on the faculty as a matter of academic freedom. “His being dismissed without being convicted is shameful and embarrassing,” Tauber said, adding” “If anything, Castor acted a little too strongly.
“As a faculty member, as a Floridian, as an American and as a Jew, I think it’s disgusting,” Tauber said of the political hay being made of the issue.
Editorialists in Florida have denounced the American Democracy Group and ridiculed Deutsch for what they describe as contracting out of his dirty work to a front group. The Tallahassee Democrat accused him of “indulging in lowdown hindsight politics,” while the Miami-Dade Jewish Journal wrote: “Shame on Peter Deutsch for stooping to low and deceptive advertising” and the Daytona Beach News called the tactic “terror baiting.”
Whether the controversy furthers the struggle against Islamicist terrorism is an open question.
The JCRC’s Eisenstadt was distressed by newspaper articles that tried to gauge how the Jewish vote will be affected by the controversy.
“It’s not a Jewish issue solely. It’s an American issue,” he said. “To have it boil down to ‘Jews are upset and everyone else isn’t’ is wrong.”