Betty Castor campaigning

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–When she was just 23, Betty Castor led a group of young women to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. That struggle was nothing compared to this.

Castor, 63, is now in the fight of her political career, a bitter battle to become the first female Democrat–and only the second woman–elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida. She faces former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez for the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat.

Being a trailblazer is nothing new for Castor, of Tampa.

As education commissioner, she was the first woman elected to the Florida cabinet.

In 1972, despite her opponent’s cries that Castor wouldn’t be home to care for her children, she became the first woman elected to the Hillsborough County Commission, the county governing board encompassing Tampa and environs.

As president of the University of South Florida, she was the second woman to head a state university. And, she was the first woman to serve as president pro tempore, a top leadership position in the Florida Senate.

Race is Dead Heat

It would be an understatement to say the race between Martinez and Castor is a close one. Of five polls conducted over the past few weeks, one had Castor with a slight lead, one had Martinez with a slight lead and three had them dead even.

“Oh my god, what a toss-up,” Larry Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, told Women’s eNews.

He predicts this race will go the way of the presidential race in Florida.

Which way is that?

“I think anyone would be nuts betting on the Florida outcome after what happened in 2000,” Sabato said.

Tough Opponent

Martinez, 57, is no stranger to a challenge himself.

He came to Florida from his native Cuba at age 15 as part of “Operation Peter Pan,” a humanitarian program led by the Catholic Church that helped more than 14,000 Cuban children escape Communist Cuba. He lived with foster families for four years until he and his family were reunited in Orlando.

Martinez has earned his Republican bona fides, and he’s the White House pick to fill the open Senate seat.

During the 1996 election cycle, he served as Florida co-chair for Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. He was Florida co-chair of the Bush presidential campaign in 2000, a Bush delegate to the Republican National Convention and a presidential elector that same year. After Martinez was elected Orange County chair in 1998, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him chair of a commission that sets statewide policy on controlling development and preventing urban sprawl.

Matching Funds

The contenders are also close in at least the amount of fund-raising, if not the actual contributors.

Castor has raised $4.5 million and spent $3.8 million, leaving her with just $760,214 to spend during the last crucial weeks of the campaign.

Martinez, on the other hand, has raised $4.4 million and still has $2.4 million to spend, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan non-profit research group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks money in politics.

Top contributors to Castor’s campaign are women’s rights activists, lawyers, retired individuals and people with interests in real estate and education.

Martinez is getting the bulk of his money from attorneys and lobbyists. Retired individuals, lobbyists and professionals in real estate and health are also providing significant contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

Both are getting more than 90 percent of their money from individuals rather than political action committees; with individuals limited by campaign-finance laws to $2,000 per election cycle.

Not a Friendly Race

The race has not been friendly.

Martinez overcame a dead heat against primary opponent Bill McCollum, a member of Congress for 20 years, with a last-minute ad campaign calling the conservative Republican a darling of the “radical homosexual lobby” because of his support of a bipartisan hate-crime bill.

Martinez’s ads against Castor have been just as nasty, accusing her of harboring an Islamic terrorist cell at the University of South Florida because she refused to fire tenured professor Sami Al-Arian, who is awaiting trial on charges he helped raise money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad while at USF. Castor put him on paid leave after unsuccessfully requesting that the FBI give her enough proof of illegal activity to fire him. Al-Arian was indicted on charges of funding terrorism after Castor left the university.

Castor’s campaign parried with its own Al-Arian ads. One showed Al-Arian posing with President Bush while Martinez was co-chairing his Florida campaign. The voice-over noted that Al-Arian was later invited to the White House.

During a heated televised debate Oct. 18, Castor agreed to stop all negative advertising if Martinez would do the same. He refused, saying he would not “make the strategy for my campaign here tonight under these lights.”

“I think they’re unfair,” Castor said of Martinez’s ads. “I think they are dishonest and I think they’re hypocritical.”

Split on Abortion, Stem Cells

The two also tangled on abortion and using embryonic stem cells for research in the hopes of curing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Martinez said he is opposed to abortion under any circumstances.

Betty Castor

“We need to always understand . . . that women’s issues also ought to be considered, the fact that too many women are driven into abortion by a husband, a spouse, a boyfriend, sometimes even a parent,” Martinez said.

Castor, who has received more than $1 million from EMILY’s List, the Washington, D.C., political-action committee that supports pro-choice Democrats, vowed to keep abortion legal.

“I think abortion should be rare,” Castor said during the debate. “And I will fight to protect Roe vs. Wade when I go to the United States Senate,” she said, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that provided women the constitutional right to abortion.

Martinez said he opposes stem-cell research if it uses embryonic stem cells. On the topic of in vitro fertilization he said he was not opposed as long as it was used to create just one embryo that was subsequently used to create a fetus.

Castor said she favors embryonic stem-cell research, not only for diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but also for a group of individuals touched by recent wars.

“We have many young men and some women coming home from fighting this war in Iraq and Afghanistan with spinal cord injuries,” Castor said. “Stem cell research and particularly embryonic stem cell research holds out a cure.”

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist in Tallahassee, Fla.

For more information:

Women’s eNews–Female Candidates Work the Convention Hall:

Women’s eNews–Decision 2004: Our Candidates, Our Choice: