We take a look at the race for Florida’s U.S. senate seat between Democratic candidate Betty Castor and Republican candidate Mel Martinez where the case of jailed Palestinian professor Sami Al-Arian has become a major subject of debate. [includes rush transcript]
The Florida U.S. Senate seat opened up after Democratic Sen. Bob Graham announced he was stepping down after three terms in office. On the Democratic ticket is former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor. On the Republican side is Mel Martinez, President Bush’s former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Recent surveys show the two candidates locked in a dead heat. While issues such as the Iraq war, minimum wage and Social security have been hotly debated, one subject has clearly dominated the race: the case of Sami Al-Arian.
Sami Al-Arian was a tenured Palestinian professor of computer science at the University of South Florida. While Betty Castor was president of the university, al-Arian was accused of raising money for Palestinian militant groups. Castor placed al-Arian on paid administrative leave but when no charges were filed, she eventually reinstated him.
In February 2003, after Castor had left USF, Al-Arian was arrested by the FBI. The Justice Department handed down a sweeping 50-count indictment, accusing him of masterminding a terrorist support group that thrived in south Florida for nearly 20 years. Sami Al-Arian has been in prison since then, awaiting trial on charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder.
At the first televised Senatorial debate between Castor and Martinez in Florida, moderator Tim Russert of NBC raised the case of al Arian in his first question.
- John Sugg, senior editor for Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based alternative weekly newspaper. He has been closely following the case of Sami Al-Arian for several years.
AMY GOODMAN: At the first televised senatorial debate, we’re going to listen to a clip, between Betty Castor and Mel Martinez. Tim Russert was the emcee. Mel Martinez answered his question.
MEL MARTINEZ: The fact of the matter is, what we have here is a situation of not just one person, but a terrorist cell operating in the University of South Florida. One of these people was a professor there for two terms and the next job, the next place on his resume is as the head of Islamic jihad in Damascus, Syria.
BETTY CASTOR: When news reports first surfaced about possible activities of Mr. Al-Arian, I went to the F.B.I, I worked with the F.B.I, I am the person that shut down the think tank, I insured the safety of the campus, and I ultimately put him on administrative leave or suspension or whatever you would have it.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of a debate between the senatorial candidates of Florida, Mel Martinez, and Betty Castor. Joining us on the line right now to talk about this race is John Sugg. He’s senior editor for Creative Loafing, which is an Atlanta-based alternative weekly newspaper. He has been closely following the case of Sami Al-Arian for several years. He comes from Florida himself. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JOHN SUGG: Hi. Glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.
JOHN SUGG: One correction on what you said. When the groups have — that Al-Arian is accused of raising money for, at the time that he was active, those groups were not illegal to have raised money for, which is one of the government’s major problems in its case, and the government has many problems in its case. But the government’s had to come up with a superceded indictment which drops a number of the counts against Al-Arian and admits that at least nine telephone numbers he is accused of having made his terrorist plans on, that he neither own those telephone numbers nor ever had access to them. It’s like one of these — you know Ashcroft has yet to convict anybody in court in front of a jury after 9/11 of terrorist things. It’s good to keep that in mind when you talk about who the terrorists in Florida are.
AMY GOODMAN: So summarize this debate, the contest for us in Florida.
JOHN SUGG: Well, Betty Castor — Florida since 1960s has had a long tradition of good governments. It was a bright spot in the South when the rest of the South was still in the political dark ages. Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Leroy Collins, a lot of these people were the leaders of a progressive South, and Betty castor is well within that tradition. She comes out of that same tradition. It’s not a particularly left tradition. It’s very pragmatic, but overall very progressive. Mel Martinez, you know, who was considered a moderate, you know, he has been guarding himself from the right, you know, he fears, you know, in six years being attacked as being too moderate, so he’s going out there, you know, with the real right wing attacks. The simple fact is, Al-Arian was embraced by George Bush. He had — he — Karl Rove invited Al-Arian to the white house. There’s a famous picture of George Bush posing with Sami Al-Arian. Bill Clinton met with Al-Arian. Al-Arian gave him materials on his cause. Al-Arian was twice invited to be a guest speaker at central command to talk to four or five hundred intelligence and military officers about Islam. So, you know, it’s all — all of this is — and as a matter of fact, Al-Arian was a consultant to the F.B.I. after the first — during the first Gulf War as to what the mood of the Muslim community would be as the war was launched. So — which doesn’t make him an informant for the F.B.I., by the way.
JUAN GONZALEZ: How has Martinez — because obviously both Karl Rove and President Bush really wanted Martinez to run rather than Katherine Harris, who had interest in running for that seat because that would have polarized the vote in Florida for the presidency, even more. But how has Martinez handled the issue of the White House’s clamp-down on travel to Cuba, because this apparently has hurt the president in the younger Cuban community in south Florida. How has Martinez handled this issue?
JOHN SUGG: Well, I don’t think he has handled it well. He has definitely not come out and opposed the administration’s policies. And what you are speaking to, by the way, is one of the great misperceptions about the Cuban community in Florida. They’re probably about 500,000 Cuban-Americans who are registered voters. This whole perception that this was a rigidly right-wing group is wrong. The old “Batista-istas”, you know in Miami, who committed something like 600 acts of terrorism, political murders and other things in the last 40 years in Miami, these guys are dying off. Jorge Mastenosa, the founder of the Cuban-American National Foundation, who boasted of his terrorist acts, he’s dead, thank god. But Martinez has made a very disturbing action. He has — he has aligned himself with a group called the Cuban Liberty Council, which is the right-wing split-off from the Cuban-American National Foundation. And I think that’s a — the wrong signal to send to the younger cubans. Because as you are — what you are speaking about is that — is that the new generation of Cubans are far less likely to be doctrineer right-wingers than their grandparents are. And I don’t even think that their grandparents — I’m from Miami, originally. Born there, five generations from there. And I — I think that this is a big mistake by Martinez to align himself with the old guard in Miami, as opposed to addressing the young Cubans.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Plus it, doesn’t help the base that he had because he’s originally from the central Florida area, and from Orlando, doesn’t help the base of the growing Puerto Rican communities of central Florida who really don’t share the same viewpoints as do the — some of the Cubans in south Florida.
JOHN SUGG: Oh absolutely, and I think that, you know, your groups in Florida, Cubans increasingly — increasing numbers of Hispanics, Latin Americans from all over, Miami is 62% — 62% of the residents of Miami are foreign-born.
AMY GOODMAN: John Sugg, on that note, we have to leave it there, senior editor of Creative Loafing. We thank you very much for being with us.