TAMPA — MacDill Air Force Base is the focus of the District 14 congressional race between Democratic incumbent Rep. Kathy Castor and her GOP challenger Evelio "E.J." Otero Jr.
Otero, 51, says Pentagon budget cuts put MacDill in jeopardy of closure and insists he has the chops to protect the base because he is a retired Air Force colonel with 28 years of service, the last 14 of those at the base.
He noted that the military is expected to cut $500 billion in the next decade.
Castor, 46, calls that concern an exaggeration, noting the Pentagon has spent hundreds of million of dollars upgrading the base since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Two of the nation's combatant commands, U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, are headquartered at MacDill, in addition to the base's host unit, the 6th Air Mobility Wing.
"They are fortunately not at risk of substantial cutbacks because the threat to our national security remains in the Middle East," Castor said. "And SOCom's mission is actually growing."
Otero worked at both commands before his 2010 retirement and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he helped lead the effort to build a CentCom oversea command headquarters and negotiated with U.S. partners in the region.
"I don't buy it," Otero said of talk that MacDill is safe from closure because of Pentagon investment in the base. "We cannot get comfortable. The minute you do, you get caught with your pants down."
He said CentCom has cut more than 2,000 positions in recent years, though much of those were temporary positions filled after the military buildup following the 9/11 attacks.
Castor points to her work leading the political effort to bring the Air Force's next-generation aerial refueling jet, the KC-46, to MacDill. Several bases are in competition with MacDill to win the first batch of the tankers expected to start coming off assembly lines in 2017.
A decision by the Air Force is expected by next year.
"We wanted to ensure the Air Force didn't overlook the strengths of MacDill," said Castor, who led a delegation to the Pentagon earlier this year to lobby on MacDill's behalf. "We wanted to remind them how much Tampa Bay values the base."
Both candidates say they favor eliminating wasteful spending in the military and other government agencies.
Both Castor and Otero point to the Port of Tampa as an engine of job creation for Tampa Bay.
Castor, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, has touted that Tampa gets more shipyard investment cash than any other U.S. port. Otero, who was born in Puerto Rico and whose father was a Cuban immigrant, criticized Castor for not doing more to develop trade with Latin America.
"I have a strong record in helping create jobs through investments," Castor said.
She said Tampa International Airport boasts the second-highest number of flights to Cuba in the nation. Castor has urged President Barack Obama to relax travel restrictions to Cuba, including a restoration of U.S.-Cuba charter flights after an absence of a half century.
Meanwhile, Otero said his work in the military involved negotiations with other governments. "That gives me a tremendous advantage" over Castor in working to build trade with Latin America, he said.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, provides sharp division between the two candidates.
Otero said he likes some of its provisions, including one allowing those with existing conditions to obtain insurance. But he said Obamacare is flawed.
"The intent is a good one," Otero said. "Most people agree with that. … Absolutely, people need to be helped. The question is, to what extent do we stress the taxpayer?"
Castor said Obamacare already is helping Floridians, including sons and daughters who are now allowed to stay on their parents' health insurance until age 26.
When U.S. House Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare in July, Castor said the law's rollback "would actually harm job growth as the law makes key investments in health care jobs — including critical investments to increase the number of health care providers and strengthen the primary care workforce."
The candidates have not yet appeared in a debate. Otero said Castor has not answered his repeated calls for a debate. Castor said, "There just haven't been enough opportunities."
District 14, which includes much of Tampa, coastal southeastern Hillsborough County and a piece of southern Pinellas County, is solidly Democratic. Evidence of that is Castor's solid lead in fundraising. She's raised $966,414 to Otero's $114,497 as of Sept. 30.
Cash on hand for the closing weeks of the campaign was similarly lopsided: Castor has $785,000 banked to Otero's $36,626.