Attacks ramped up in Senate race
MIAMI — With only six days before the election, Senate candidates Mel Martinez and Betty Castor took the gloves off Wednesday and slammed each other’s public service and personal integrity.
At a morning news conference with Gov. Jeb Bush in Tallahassee, Martinez, the Republican nominee, said Castor’s years as Florida’s education commissioner were marked by falling standards, low test scores, poor student achievement and a growing number of high school dropouts.
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Meanwhile, in rallies with vice presidential candidate John Edwards in Clearwater and Miami, Castor, the Democratic candidate, defended her record as education commissioner and criticized Martinez’s record during three years as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Gov. Bush said that during Castor’s six years as education commissioner she was more interested in protecting the school establishment than helping students. And he said Castor was more interested in “blaming the test” for low test scores than improving learning so that students could score higher.
“Betty Castor was education commissioner for six years,” Bush said. “You would think that she’d be running on that record because that was her statewide office, but basically in this campaign she’s been silent on her education record.”
Castor told the Clearwater crowd “I will hold my record up to Mel Martinez’s record any day of the week.”
She said while she was commissioner from 1987 to 1993, teacher salaries increased by 39 percent, high school graduation rates jumped, and the number of graduates going on to college increased from 43 percent to 61 percent.
“That’s my record, and I’m proud of it,” she said.
Castor criticized Martinez’s support for school vouchers and promised she would never support diverting tax money to private schools.
Martinez told reporters that school choice should be available to parents with children in failed schools.
HUD record slammed
Castor used her introductions of Edwards in Clearwater and at Miami-Dade College to criticize Martinez’s record at HUD.
She noted that while Martinez was HUD secretary, “the Bush administration created a report card for all government agencies, and guess what: They gave him failing grades in every category.”
Castor said Martinez opposed a proposal made by a bipartisan commission headed by former HUD Secretaries Jack Kemp, a Republican, and Henry Cisneros, a Democrat, that recommended creation of a trust fund that would provide federal housing grants to state and local agencies to assist them in providing more housing for low-income Americans.
Castor also said Hispanic homeownership rates declined while Martinez was secretary and that he squelched an internal investigation regarding discrimination against minorities.
“Open that report. Tell us what’s in it,” Castor cried at the Clearwater rally.
Castor charged that Martinez’s record at HUD occurred “while he bought himself a mansion from a New York financier who’s known for helping politicians.”
Castor’s comments brought into the open questions that have simmered behind the scenes for several weeks about whether Martinez received a favorable price for a house owned by a company headed by Ron Perelman, one of the richest men in America and a major investor in Citigroup Inc., whose profits could be affected by HUD business deals and regulations.
Martinez called the questions about his house purchase “crap” and angrily accused Castor of “character assassination.”
“How low is this campaign going to get?” he said. “This is totally below the belt.”
Saying the purchase of his home was a straight-forward real estate transaction, Martinez said if Castor has evidence of anything wrong, “I would dare them to bring it forward. This is my personal reputation they are attacking. This is not about issues.”
‘A real contrast’
The two-story brick house in McLean, Va. — with 3,800 square feet of living space and a two-story colonial porch — was put on the market in the summer of 2002 by an attorney for a company headed by Perelman, according to Virginia property records.
After failing to sell the house on the open market, the attorney, who took a job with another Perelman company in California, sold it in November 2002 to Pride 21 Corp. for $1.22 million, the attorney’s original purchase price.
Pride 21, a Perelman company that handles real estate transactions for his company executives, put the house on the market and accepted an offer in January 2003 from another buyer for $1.198 million, slightly below Pride 21’s purchase price, but the sale fell through when the buyer was unable to close the deal, according to Christine Taylor, a spokeswoman for Perelman. She said Martinez purchased the house for $1.205 million in May 2003.
In an interview with The Palm Beach Post this month, Martinez said he did not know who Perelman was or who owned the house until he went to the closing.
“I met him (the attorney who previously owned the house) as we sat at the closing table and signed papers. Never saw him before, never talked to him before and never saw him since.”
Taylor said Perelman had no involvement with the sale of the property to Martinez and that “Neither Pride 21, nor any of its affiliates, had any other involvement with the buyer (Martinez) during his tenure in government.”
Martinez sold the house in April 2004 for $1.4 million. He said he had spent about $100,000 in improvements.
Castor later told reporters that she was not implying that Martinez did anything wrong in his purchase of the house, but that it reflected how out of touch he is with the average person.
“I’m not saying there is anything wrong, I’m saying that that’s a real contrast when you’re supposed to be working to provide affordable housing and you’re not sensitive to those issues.”
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