Terrorism emerges as issue in Florida race for U.S. Senate seat

washington | 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 back yard.

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 different 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 in which control of the Senate is up for grabs, 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 housing and urban development.

Deutsch says Castor is unelectable in November because of her ties to University of South Florida. 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.

“She had the information and did nothing,” Deutsch said. “Evil was in her midst and she did nothing.”

Friedman dismisses the investigation, saying it didn’t delve into the off-campus activities of Al-Arian or think-tank officials.

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 two weeks ago.

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 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, praying with constituents and giving lectures.