Betty Castor accuses her rival of outsourcing jobs; Mel Martinez reminds voters of his foe's handling of Sami Al-Arian.
By ANITA KUMAR and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published October 30, 2004
PANAMA CITY, Fla. - Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor accused Republican rival Mel Martinez Friday of outsourcing hundreds of jobs while on the board of directors of a major U.S. furniture company.
Martinez countered by returning to an issue that has dominated the race: Castor's handling of a USF professor accused of having ties to terrorists while she was president of the school.
With polls showing the race deadlocked in the final days, both candidates tried to stay on the offensive, alternating attacks and touting their stands on issues.
Castor tied her latest attack to the broader issue of jobs and the economy and began airing a new 60-second radio ad on the subject.
As a director of La-Z-Boy Corp., Martinez voted to approve a five-year plan for the Michigan company that included laying off workers across the United States and importing merchandise from Chinese and other foreign manufacturers.
"He was a member of the board, knew of their corporate plans, did nothing to stop it," Castor said at a Tallahassee rally. "I ask you: How can we trust someone like Mel Martinez to keep jobs here at home when he was part of a corporate board that voted to send American jobs overseas?"
Mark Stegeman, La-Z-Boy's treasurer, said Chinese manufacturers have the advantage of cheap labor without environmental and health care standards. He said the furniture retailer shed 6,500 jobs over the past four years while trying to compete, and that Castor's criticism of Martinez was unfair.
Martinez did not deny a role in the company's outsourcing move.
"I don't support outsourcing. I think it's a reality of today's commerce. It's a fact of life," Martinez said. "If the job can remain in America, I'm all for that. But if the job can't be competitive in America, then it's inevitable that it's going to go elsewhere."
The former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary agains raised questions about Castor's handling of Al-Arian, saying the indicted former USF professor got pay raises during the two years Castor placed him on paid administrative leave.
"She gave him pay raises and hoped the problem would go away. Terrorists seek to harm us and they masquerade as college professors while Betty Castor tries to be politically correct," Martinez said on a day when a taped message from Osama bin Laden emerged in the United States.
Castor's campaign said Friday that she did all she could to rid the campus of Al-Arian. But her spokesman said he didn't want to comment further for fear it would highlight an issue that had not surfaced for a few days.
Martinez also reminded about 100 supporters at GOP headquarters in Pensacola that Castor has said she would have voted against the Iraq invasion if she had known Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
"That's a mistake," Martinez said. "That's the wrong kind of thinking. That's bad judgment at the time of war."
Castor kicked off her Panhandle bus tour with a morning rally with Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Several hundred people attended.
She spent the day outlining differences between herself and Martinez on Social Security and education, but spent most of the day in North Florida talking about the war in Iraq, her opposition to military base closures and the importance of jobs.
Castor says she favors ending tax incentives that encourage companies to move businesses overseas.
She says she wants to prohibit corporations from conducting business transactions or setting up headquarters overseas simply to avoid paying U.S. taxes and no longer allow Americans companies to claim tax deductions when they lease property from a local government and release it back to them.
After he left HUD, Martinez was given a seat on the board of La-Z-Boy that came with $5,000 in stock options, $28,000 a year in compensation and director's fees.
"Mel Martinez would favor the wealthy and big corporations, rather than do the right thing for you," Castor said.
Martinez also campaigned in the Panhandle, including a rally in Panama City with retired Gen. Tommy Franks of Tampa. Franks led the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Castor will continue with her bus tour today in Central Florida. She will hold a rally with singer Jimmy Buffett in downtown Tampa Monday afternoon, and Martinez will attend a GOP rally in Orlando tonight with President Bush and three more rallies with the president Sunday, including one at Legends Field in Tampa.