Castor's run for the U.S. Senate is just the latest challenge
the 63-year-old hopes to conquer.
grew up in New Jersey, born and raised in the town of Glassboro, where
her father served as mayor. She graduated from Glassboro State University
in 1962 and headed out into the world to face the first of many tests
of her stamina and intellect.
Castor headed for
Uganda to work as a schoolteacher. While there she accomplished one
of what would become many firsts: leading a group of her students up
Mt. Kilimanjaro as part of the first all-women team to climb the summit.
Friends have described the ascent as life-changing, and Castor herself
said that it was emblematic of her belief that life should be a "journey
Upon her return
to the United States, she moved to Florida, earning her Master's
degree in education at the University of Miami in 1968.
Castor was not a
Floridian long before she entered the family business of local politics.
She ran and became the Hillsborough county commissioner in 1972, helping
run the county in the Tampa area. Within four years, Castor had been
elected chairwoman of the commission. Also in 1976, Castor ran for state
senator and won, representing part of central Florida in Tallahassee.
Castor soon eyed
statewide office, mounting a campaign in 1978 for Democratic nomination
for lieutenant governor. But it was this race that handed her her first
defeat at the hands of Bob Graham, the same man she is now hoping to
replace in the U.S. Senate when he retires this fall. Graham is now
Castor's most important political ally, having endorsed her early in
the primary race and going on the offensive for her against Democratic
and Republican opponents alike.
Undeterred by the
loss, she won reelection in 1982 and soon rose to become the first female
president pro tempore of the Florida Senate in 1985. One year later,
Castor became the Florida commissioner of Education, perhaps her most
widely recognized political experience thus far. Castor often cites
her work as the head of Florida's public schools as evidence of her
ability to be an effective, consensus-building moderate. Castor has
said, "As education commissioner, I was able to work across party
lines" to raise teacher salaries and introduce initiatives to partner
businesses with local schools.
During this period,
Florida's schools saw neither significant improvement nor decline, but
Castor's work leading one of the largest school systems in the country
did earn her an appointment to the presidency of the University of South
Florida, an unusual opportunity for someone without a doctoral degree.
Castor's supporters credit her stewardship with USF growing into a major
research university in recent years.
But her tenure at
the university was not without scandal. In 1996, USF computer engineering
professor Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian raised in Kuwait, was investigated
by the FBI for suspected ties to anti-Israeli groups labeled by the
U.S. government as terrorist organizations. Al-Arian admitted giving
financial support to Palestinian organizations but denied any illegal
activity. While the investigation was pending, Castor decided to put
al-Arian on paid leave.
Discussing the incident
with a roundtable of reporters this spring, Castor said, "For three
years, I got not one iota of information.
Finally, I wrote to
the federal authorities and said, after he'd been on the payroll for
three years, 'Can you give me a reason why he shouldn't be able to stay
there?' They wrote back and said 'No.'" In 1999, Castor allowed
al-Arian back on campus, claiming that tenure rules prevented her from
taking any other action.
resumed their investigation into al-Arian after the attacks of Sept.
11, 2001, indicting him for a leadership role in the terror and suicide-bomber
network Islamic Jihad. USF fired al-Arian before the FBI arrested him
in February of 2003, and he is still being held without bail under the
left the university in 1999, her connection with the case was fodder
for debate in the primary. Her chief rival in the primary, U.S. Rep.
David Deutsch, challenged the "not one iota" remark, and repeatedly
criticized Castor over the al-Arian affair.
Television ads financed
by a supporter of Deutsch said that Castor saw search warrants for al-Arian,
and claimed that that information should have been enough to prompt
Castor to personally confront the professor.
To respond to the
Section 527 group's ads criticizing her handling of al-Arian, Castor's
campaign released a statement, "The real question is, who are the
people behind Deutsch's secretly financed project?"
Castor's own influx
of cash was a point of contention in the primary as well. Her campaign
funds were not competitive with Deutsch's until she received $1.7 million
from the national group Emily's List, which works to get pro-choice
women elected. Running against two pro-choice men, some questioned the
fairness of Castor's gender-based advantage.
In an early campaign
ad, Castor touted her femininity, saying, "Long before I became
a legislator or a university president, I was a teacher, I was a wife,
I was a mother. So family values come naturally to me. And those are
the kind of values I'll take to the United States Senate."
Once divorced, Castor
is married to lobbyist and former state legislator Sam Bell and has
six children and 10 grandchildren.
From the beginning
of her campaign, Castor has enjoyed support from powerful friends. Janet
Reno, former Florida gubernatorial candidate and U.S. attorney general,
announced her support for Castor in December of 2003. After her closely
watched primary win on Sept. 1, Castor quickly appeared onstage with
both of Florida's U.S. senators at an American Legion event, promising
to fight for Veterans' health benefits. Ben Nelson and Graham declared
she was an "independent voice," squarely focusing their criticism
on the close ties to President Bush enjoyed by her Republican competitor
in the general election, Mel Martinez.
hopes to portray Martinez as an arch conservative, capitalizing on remarks
he made in the Republican primary. Some Democrats such as State Attorney
Harry Shorstein, however, have said that Martinez's competitor in the
Republican primary, Bill McCollum, would have made a more "stark
contrast" to Castor's moderate politics, though Duval County Democratic
Chairman Clyde Collins is confident that Castor can win if she reaches
out "to independents and Republicans that have followed her in
the past as commissioner of education."
With the Democratic
stronghold of central Florida and Castor's Tampa hometown apparently
locked in her favor, Castor hopes to attract African American supporters.
In addition, recognizing that Martinez may enjoy most of southern Florida's
Cuban vote, "We'll be going after younger-generation Cubans and
non-Cuban Hispanics," she said. "I think that's a community
I can penetrate."
theme in the election has been her balanced political views. She says
she would have voted for the war in Iraq based on the evidence at the
time, and vows to address prescription drug costs. She freely admits
her role model is Bob Graham, known for their moderate politics and
his past leadership of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The 2004 race is
the first one Castor has entered since 1990, but her career in Florida
politics has lasted three decades. After a comfortable win in the primary,
she faces one of the closest of the nation's 34 Senate races on Nov.
for the Online NewsHour by Molly