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Martinez going after Castor on Al-Arian issue

Published Aug. 28, 2005

U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez accused rival Betty Castor Tuesday of not telling the truth in a TV ad that claims she removed a suspected terrorist from the University of South Florida.

"It's just factually wrong," Martinez, an Orlando Republican, said in an interview. "It's trying to say something that in fact she did not do."

Castor, a Tampa Democrat, put computer science professor Sami Al-Arian on paid leave for two years in the 1990s while she looked into allegations against him. The leave was not considered a disciplinary action, and Al-Arian could come and go freely on campus.

Al-Arian, who was later reinstated by Castor, was indicted last year and fired by Castor's successor, Judy Genshaft.

"I think president Castor at that time showed some naivete," Martinez said. "I would say that there certainly seems to be a pretty decent amount of indecisiveness about it or inattention to it."

Castor spokesman Dan McLaughlin insisted the ad was factual, and called Martinez's comments "ugly" and "insulting."

"This is characteristic of Martinez," he said. "Everything he is saying is a personal attack on Betty."

In an ad airing this week in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Jacksonville, Castor alludes to tough decisions she faced without naming USF or Al-Arian.

"Every candidate talks about terrorism, but I've dealt with it firsthand," she says in the ad. "As university president, I took action to remove a suspected terrorist from our campus."

The ad was an unusual move for Castor, who talked about Al-Arian during the Democratic primary only when her chief opponent, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, attacked her for not firing him.

Martinez's campaign staff was so surprised that they speculated Castor ran the ad by mistake. But McLaughlin said the ad shows "homeland security is an important issue that should be discussed."

Martinez said he hadn't been sure he would raise Al-Arian as an issue, but now "we'll have to respond. She has brought it up. She's made it an issue."

Castor said she never had sufficient grounds to fire Al-Arian. She also pointed out that Al-Arian campaigned for President Bush in 2000, posed for a photo with him at Plant City's Strawberry Festival in March of that year and visited the White House complex in 2001 for a meeting with Muslim activists and Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove.

Castor began airing a second ad Monday that criticizes Martinez for opposing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, opposing a higher minimum wage and promoting vouchers, which the Castor campaign says hurt public schools. It is airing this week in the Tampa Bay, Orlando and West Palm Beach media markets.

The ads "may show a little nervousness about how this race is shaping up for her," Martinez said. "I'm surprised by the negativity this early in the campaign."