Kathy Castor Archives - Florida Politics

Old tensions about Cuba resurface at Tampa City Council meeting

A recent trip to Cuba by Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin and Councilman Harry Cohen was just the latest by members of the political establishment who have worked for nearly a decade to set up closer relations between the city and the Communist island.

Former Councilwoman Mary Mulhern first visited Cuba as part of a delegation of local business leaders in 2009, and she boarded the first direct flight from Tampa to Havana in 2011 after the Obama administration opened up travel to other U.S. airports beyond Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

Although not nearly as controversial as a decade ago, such trips are still not necessarily universally embraced in Tampa, which houses a huge Cuban-American population, including exiles of the Fidel Castro regime.

After former President Barack Obama made history in 2014 when he announced a full resumption of relations with Cuba, council members rallied to seek a Cuban embassy in Tampa.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn did not endorse the move, saying he always remained loyal to those exiles.

Those tensions came to light at a presentation Thursday when Councilman Mike Suarez, a Cuban-American who never fully embraced the outreach, asked Capin if any members of the delegation had reached out to Cuban dissidents, referring to how former Congressman Jim Davis had done so during a trip in 2006.

Capin said they had not, but appreciated the question.

“Our president just went to China and Vietnam,” Capin said. “He did not ask to see any dissidents.”

“I’m not challenging you at all,” Suarez replied.

Capin had made six trips to Cuba, and she said the issue of meeting dissidents had never come up a single time.

Tampa’s current U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, made her first trip to Cuba in 2013, meeting dissidents at that time. Upon her return, she became the first member of Florida’s congressional delegation to call for the end of the U.S. economic embargo to the island.

Officials Capin met in Cuba asked for “mutual respect for different ideologies,” and dispelled the perception that the country was in “chaos” following Hurricane Irma.

Chambers of Commerce for Tampa and St. Petersburg are considering attending the annual International Trade Fair there, she said.

“In my estimation, Tampa stands to gain thousands and thousands of jobs and transforms us into the global city that we want to be.”

While the local delegation visited the island nation, Donald Trump blamed Cuba for the mysterious attacks that sickened American diplomats there and prompted the abrupt withdrawal of United States embassy staff from Havana.

Cohen said that comment created certain a “chill” on the trip, which he deemed “unfortunate.”

“The international situation I think more than anything, more than anything else, was made clear to us that was going to affect our own region’s ability to engage with the future of Cuba,” Cohen added.

He did say that the Florida Aquarium will continue its partnership with the National Aquarium of Cuba, where it is nurturing and tracking coral reefs in Cuba to learn how to save reefs in Florida better.

Last week, the Trump administration rolled back some of the diplomatic thaw enacted by the Obama administration.

Travelers who visit Cuba under “people to people” guidelines must now book a tour only with an official U.S. group; a member of that team must go with them on the trip.

The administration also issued a list of more than 100 businesses, including 84 hotels, where American travelers cannot go.

Earlier in the council discussion, Luis Viera, another Cuban-American member of the board whose family members are exiles, said he supports Capin and Cohen’s visit as part of what he calls “principled engagement” with Cuba.

He challenged his colleagues to have a dialogue with Cuban-exiles about the relations with the country.

“I think that this would behoove us as council members on this if that’s something that is going to be continued as a policy is to engage members of that community,” he said, “because in the city of Tampa that community is a very large part of our city in terms of the social fabric, cultural fabric, etc.”

Capin said that was an excellent idea.

Two members of the audience questioned the council members visit.

“I have family in Cuba, I want to see a change in Cuba,” said Rafael Pizo, who complained that his family in Cuba still cannot buy aspirin, which had nothing to do with an economic embargo. “This is a tactic by the regime to keep the people down.”

Another unidentified Cuban exile, who spoke in Spanish (with an English translator), said the council was wasting its time trying to do business with the current regime.

“What business can we expect with this regime, they don’t even pay their allies and they pay no debts?” he asked. “To give them our money that we need in our communities for our roads, for our sick, for our social economic programs, we need our money here in our town, not in Cuba, they have nothing to offer us.”

Kathy Castor blasts Donald Trump’s new Cuban travel restrictions

Kathy Castor is not happy with a series of measures published by the White House Wednesday that tightening limits on Americans’ dealings with Cuba.

The Tampa Democratic congresswoman is bothered by the package, which includes a blacklist of state-owned companies and entities, including shops and hotels. It also requires most U.S. citizens wanting to travel to the island to only go as part of organized tour groups, which had been the case before former President Barack Obama loosened the rules nearly three years ago.

The measures come as part of a partial rollback of Obama’s rapprochement with the Communist island that was initially announced back in June by current President Donald Trump.

Those who already booked and paid for a trip on their own will be allowed to go, and transactions with businesses on the barred list can be completed, the administration said. The new rules, which start Thursday, apply only to future travel and commerce.

Eighty-three hotels are on the banned list.

Castor denounced the new regulations as part of a “backward policy” of the Trump administration to “return to failed Cold War isolationist policies toward Cuba and the Cuban people.”

She said America instead should be focused on supporting Cuba’s growing private sector by encouraging more Americans to travel to Cuba rather than adding restrictions on Americans, cultural exchanges and businesses.

“Since the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba, thousands of Americans have visited and numerous businesses have explored new markets,” Castor said Wednesday. “These activities have not only opened new economic opportunities for Americans and Cubans alike, they serve as an integral part of our efforts to promote the spread of democracy and ensure the security of our region.”

Castor, who has become the leading voice in the Florida congressional delegation in removing the more than five decades long economic embargo against Cuba, was also disappointed by the lack of any progress regarding the investigation on the unexplained episodes involving health problems suffered by U.S. diplomatic personnel in Havana.

Last month, the State Department ordered 15 Cuban diplomats to leave the U.S. from its Washington Embassy, a move prompted by the mysterious illness affecting U.S. diplomatic personnel and family members in Havana.

The move came after the U.S. had decided to cut its own embassy staff in Havana by similar numbers “to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm.”

“I was advised by Trump administration officials in October that U.S. investigators had left with no determination as to the nature or cause of these incidents,” Castor said. “Furthermore, every day that goes by without adequate embassy personnel available to process visas harms Cuban and American families.

“The U.S. has now effectively ended travel by Cubans to visit their loved ones in the U.S. under the nonimmigrant visa. This is cruel and heartbreaking for many families who I see in my Tampa office regularly.”

 

Democrats across Florida congratulate Rick Kriseman on his re-election

Florida Democrats are more fired up than ever.

A little more than a month ago, Florida Democrats scored a historic victory in the special election for Senate District 40. In a low turnout election, Democrat Annette Taddeo flipped a competitive state Senate seat from red to blue, defeating the well-funded Republican, Jose Felix Diaz.

Re-electing Mayor Rick Kriseman was a significant victory for Florida Democrats. The Democratic mayor faced a tough challenge from a popular, former two-term Republican mayor—Rick Baker.

Throughout the campaign, Florida Democrats from across the state made thousands of calls and knocked on thousands of doors in St. Pete, encouraging progressives to get out and vote.

The Florida Democratic Party made a significant investment in Kriseman’s re-election campaign, putting considerable resources towards on-the-ground organizers and tools to mobilize voters and boost turnout.

“Democrats just keep winning—grassroots enthusiasm is surging across the state, and Florida Democrats are ready to compete in all 67 counties,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Stephen Bittel. “When Democrats run on their values, they win. The Florida Democratic Party is ready to flip Florida blue in 2018, and we are committed to winning seats at every level of government—from school board to the United States Senate.”

Here is a compilation of other Democrats reaction to Kriseman’s victory:

Former governor Charlie Crist, via Twitter:

“The people are the boss and they’ve told us they want a vibrant, inclusive, and progressive Sunshine City. Congratulations, Mayor @Kriseman!!!

Gubernatorial candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum:

“Congrats @Kriseman & St. Pete! The politics of division will not fool us again. Florida Democrats have so much to be excited about in 2018.”

Gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham:

“The people have voted to keep moving St. Pete forward! Mayor Rick Kriseman’s work to tackle big problems with big solutions earned him re-election tonight. I look forward to working with him as a partner in restoring our promise to public schools, defending our clean land and water, and building an economy that works for every Floridian.”

Gubernatorial candidate Phil Levine:

“Congrats to my friend and fellow Mayor on his hard-fought victory tonight. With the election behind him now, Mayor Kriseman can continue his important work on climate change and making sure St. Petersburg’s vision for being a resilient city comes to fruition.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, via Twitter:

Mayor Rick @Kriseman re-elected tonight by #StPetersburg🌞, a community that values everyone & knows their leader does too!

Kathy Castor: Don’t be scared to sign up for Affordable Care Act

On Halloween morning, Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said Americans shouldn’t be fearful about signing up for the Affordable Care Act, which begins open enrollment on Wednesday.

“Do not let them scare you away from affordable health insurance,” Castor said at a news conference held at the Old Tampa Bookstore in downtown Tampa.

Open enrollment runs from November 1 to December 15 — the shortest period to sign up for Obamacare since the marketplaces first opened in the fall of 2013.

That’s just part of what Castor and other Democrats have been calling the “sabotage” of the ACA by President Trump this year.

The advertising budget for the open enrollment period nationally has been cut to just $10 million, a 90 percent reduction from the $100 million spent by the Obama administration last year.

Grants to navigators — the folks who help people enroll in health plans offered through the insurance marketplace — were cut from $63 million to $36 million.

Jodi Ray is project director for the Florida Covering Kids & Families (FL-CKF) program at the Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies, USF College of Public Health. She is responsible for hiring and training navigators around the state to help adults shopping for subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.

“We’ve got navigators all over the state of Florida who are on the ground and in the communities. They will be going to where people are, where they live and where they eat to help sign them up for coverage,” she said.

Adding to the general confusion about the ACA is the well-reported news from earlier this month that Trump has eliminated subsidies to health insurance companies that help pay out-of-pocket costs of low-income people.

Not to worry, insists Ray.

“Individuals who qualify for tax credits will still get their tax credits,” she says. “In fact, as the premiums have gone up, those who have qualified for tax credits will see their tax credits go up alongside that, so they will not be hit by those premium increases.”

Citizens whose income is up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level also will still get cost-sharing reductions, lowering their out-of-pocket costs for deductibles and co-pays. Ray says some consumers could see some of their out-of-pocket costs decrease in 2018.

“There are some gold plans that will cost some consumers less than taking a silver plan, just because of the tax credits,” Ray says, adding that citizens need to shop around for the best plan that works for them.

Those who don’t qualify for subsidies on the ACA, however, will see their insurance premiums rise next year.

Helen Kirton, a health care worker from Tampa and a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), criticized President Trump’s proposed federal budget, saying that the cuts to Medicaid and Medicare “are going to be devastating.”

“I need medication to live,” said Dolores Grayson with Organize Florida. She’s on Medicare, which subsidizes the cost of the prescriptions drugs she uses. Without insurance, one of those drugs costs $600 a month.

Ray said she and her fellow navigators will be working harder than ever to sign up as many uninsured people as possible before enrollment ends in December, despite the $900,000 cut to her navigator budget.

The telephone number to call to speak to a navigator is 877-813-9115.

Getting into the Halloween spirit at the news conference was Tim Heberlein with the activist group Organize Florida, clad as the Grim Reaper.

“Do not let them scare you away from affordable health insurance,” Castor concluded, as she gave a wayward glance over to the personification of death.

Veterans recognized at Tampa Vietnam War commemoration

As Veterans Day approaches, more than 40 local members of the armed forces were honored Monday for service during the Vietnam War at a pinning ceremony at Tampa’s Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center.

“Some of you were not welcomed home with open arms — many were — but if you were not … we’re going to rectify that today because you’re all American heroes,” Kathy Castor said in addressing the veterans. “We salute you, love you, and honor you.”

The Tampa-area congresswoman was part of the 50th anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration event, which locally also included the placement of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall on display this weekend at Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park.

The intensity and tragedy of that war were brought home to Americans again last month with the broadcast of “The Vietnam War,” the 18-hour PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Castor said the series brought back her own memories as a youth about that war, saying, “Walter Cronkite‘s tone changed when we realized, ‘gosh our elected leaders have not been as straightforward as they should during that time.’ Kind of bursting that bubble of idealism …”

Historian and former director of the Florida Studies Program at USF – St. Petersburg Gary Mormino gave a brief recap of Tampa’s history with war, leading up to the social tumult of the 1960s when the war was at its peak.

The 70-year-old academic was in college during that period, and he said there wasn’t a single day then when he didn’t think of Vietnam.

He said the military draft held at that time was unfair and that if the country were ever to employ such a draft in the future, it can’t allow the same type of deferments that allowed many Americans to get out of serving at that time.  Students enrolled in college then could receive draft deferments each year they were in school.

Married men of draft age also could get deferments and were totally out of the draft if they had children.

“Most of my college professors were World War II vets,” he recounted. “Almost none of my colleagues were Vietnam vets.”

Mormino trained “war dogs” for the Vietnam War.

“I’d like to think that one of those dogs to sniff our landmines maybe saved someone in this audience,” he said before thanking the soldiers for their service.

Colonel Troy Pananon, vice wing commander 5th Mobility Wing, MacDill Air Force Base, is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. That war was wrapped up within 100 days and was highly popular in the U.S., as it achieved its mission of moving Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. It was the country’s first major military action since Vietnam ended in the mid-1970s, and led many analysts to say it ended the “Post-Vietnam Syndrome” that the county and military had been under.

Pananon said he and his fellow soldiers received a “hero’s welcome.”

“I think America learned a hard lesson,” he said in contrast to the welcome that Vietnam vets received in America following that war.

The event was moderated by WFLA TV’s Leslee Lacey, a military veteran herself who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lacey got extremely emotional early on in the proceedings, talking about how divided America was during that time.

“It was a difficult war. It was a misunderstood war,” she said, before breaking down and stopping for several moments.

“There’s no choice for a military member except to follow orders, and Americans who didn’t understand that, I believe understand that now,” she said, adding that most Americans believe it’s of “vital importance” to support veterans.

“Especially you. And if we didn’t do it right back then, we’re going to do it now, and we’ll continue to do it throughout American history,” Lacey added.

Castor said what stood out more than anything from the PBS documentary was the patriotism and love of country from so many Americans.

“The bravery of all of you shone through,” she told a crowd of Vietnam veterans and their friends and family on Monday morning.

Castor said every day was Veterans Day in her local congressional office in west Tampa. “If you have the need for a VA claim or appeal, please do not be shy about it,” adding that her office recovered more than $700,000 in benefits owed to veterans in her district.

“That’s the least we can do for your service,” she said.

Kathy Castor pushes bills to help with student loan debt

While Washington is filled with talk about cutting taxes and possibly health care benefits, Tampa Representative Kathy Castor sat down with current and former students from the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of Tampa (UT) at the Attic in downtown Tampa on Wednesday to ask them about two of her potential proposals regarding student loan debt, which continues drag the economy.

Having attended college in the 1980s, Castor said there are students with a lot more debt in 2017, with Pell Grants not keeping pace with inflation, rising tuition costs, and the attendant costs of paying for textbooks, transportation and a higher cost of living.

The average student for UT grads is approximately $31,000. At USF it’s $22,000.

Castor is co-sponsoring two bills to address the issue. The first and most pressing legislation looks to reestablish funding for the Federal Perkins Loan, after Congress failed to reauthorize the program at the end of September. About 2.7 million students in the U.S. received the Perkins Loan, which was subsidized by the students, who paid for it at a 5 percent interest rate.

She’s also sponsoring The Student Loan Relief Act,  which would lower the cap on federal student loan interest to 4 percent for undergraduate students, 5 percent for graduate students and 6 percent for parents.  It would change the way student loan interest rates are calculated, allow borrowers with loans disbursed before the effective date to refinance their loans at the new rates and eliminate loan origination fees.  U.S. Sen. Nelson unveiled the Senate version earlier this month.

“Just having certainty that you know that (the debt rate) is going to stay there…that would be amazing to me and I’m sure a lot of students will have the confidence in what they’ll be paying,” said UT student Aislinn E. Sroczynsk.

“I think people could breath a sigh of relief knowing it’s going to be capped at something, ” added Troy Schneider, also a UT student. “That would really help a lot of people.”

Moneer Kheireddine, USF student body president, said a problem is that the payment schedule is organized so that students must pay for the entire semester just as it begins. “Instead of having to pay off loans at the beginning of the semester, they can space it out and as they accumulate their finances through the semester, they can pay that off as opposed to having to pay off loans.”

“I’ve lived most of my business career with the wolf at the door,” said Kostas Stoilas, entrepreneur-in-residence with Tampa Bay Wave, referring to the loans he continues to pay back, years after earning his MBA at UT.

“You try to keep that wolf at bay by keeping your expenses down,” he says, referring to the $40,000 in debt he incurred in school, and how that affects his monthly bottom line as heads a commercial real estate company.

Sroczynsk says she aspires to go to a top-tier law school like Georgetown. But she worries that if she can’t afford to payback the loans after graduation, it could diminish her zeal for even pursuing such a career.

“I don’t want to have to compromise my career or my passion…just because I can’t afford my loans, or because the minimal payment is too high.”

Castor jokingly asked the students who gave their thumbs up to her proposals if they were ready to lobby the state Legislature, but Kheireddine said he’s already scheduled to travel to Tallahassee three times next month and would gladly advocate on her behalf.

Castor said debt relief for students is rarely discussed in Congress these days, which is why she’s hoping to build a coalition in the House of Representatives to push for her bills.

“The bulk of the year it’s been a fight over healthcare,” she said. “I hope they’re going to talk to state legislators, business leaders and anyone else.”

Vern Buchanan says he’ll back extending CHIP

Sarasota Congressman Vern Buchanan said Monday he intends to support the federal-state program that provides health coverage to millions of children in lower-and middle-class families.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is up for renewal at the end of this month.

“This important program provides peace of mind to families that if their children get sick, they will get the medical attention they need,” Buchanan said. “I grew up in a blue-collar home with five brothers and sisters, so I understand how important that is.”

That appears to be the overriding sentiment on Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, announced last week that they had reached agreement on a plan to keep the program afloat.

CHIP covers more than 9 million kids, most from families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, the state-federal program that covers health care for people with low incomes. Income eligibility levels for CHIP vary widely among states, though most set thresholds at or below 200 percent of the poverty level — about $49,000 for a family of four. Unlike Medicaid, CHIP is usually not free to participants. Enrolled families pay an average premium of about $127 a year.

There is bipartisan support for the bill, though there are probably more Democrats than Republicans who support it in the House. In May, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to cut $400 million from the program.

Tampa Representative Kathy Castor participated in a news conference late last month with other local Democrats urging Congress to reapprove funding for the program.

Buchanan voted for extending CHIP the last time its funding came before the House nearly a decade ago.

The legislation originally was created for the federal government and the states to share its costs, but the Affordable Care Act increased the federal share in each state by 23 percentage points. As a result, the federal government pays the entire cost in 11 states, according to The New York Times.

The agreement by the Senate leaders would gradually restore the financial partnership between the federal government and the states. The federal share would continue to be enhanced by 23 percentage points, as under current law, for two more years, in 2018 and 2019. The increase would then be halved, to 11.5 percentage points, in 2020, and would be eliminated in 2021 and 2022.

 

Kathy Castor wants increased federal disaster aid for Florida after Irma

Tampa Democratic Representative Kathy Castor is pressing for an increase in federal disaster aid to the highest share possible to help Floridians recover rapidly from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

“I intend to be a proactive partner to our local Tampa and Hillsborough County communities to speed recovery,” Castor said in a statement Tuesday. “I will press electric utilities to restore power and ensure that our local partners have the resources to speed debris removal in the short term and fight for all disaster aid in the long term.

“That is why I have joined with others in the Florida congressional delegation to call for an increase in the federal share of public assistance, swift reimbursement for local partners and prompt review and approval of individual requests for assistance.”

Citing the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Assistance Act which says catastrophic storms like Hurricanes Irma warrant a higher federal cost share to cover clean up and recovery efforts, Castor says she supports an increase to 100 percent federal cost for Public Assistance Category A, which is currently funded at a 75 percent federal cost share.

 “As our neighbors return to their homes and survey the damage we will begin to understand the severity of damage inflicted upon homes, businesses and schools,” the Tampa Democrat said. “The increased federal cost share will be critical to hiring local contractors and bolstering local government debris removal.”

Castor met with Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and the local FEMA representative in Tampa Tuesday. She says individuals who suffered storm damage should consult FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program at disasterassistance.gov and download the FEMA app to begin working on getting assistance.

President Donald Trump issued a major disaster declaration for the state of Florida Sunday, triggering the release of federal funds to help Floridians recover from the hurricane. Hillsborough, Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward, Charlotte, Clay, Collier, Duval, Flagler, Lee, Manatee, Palm Beach, Putnam, Sarasota and St. Johns counties are all listed as Individual Assistance (IA) counties, where direct assistance can be sent to individuals and households.

FEMA released a summary of key federal disaster aid programs that can be made available as “needed and warranted” under Trump’s disaster declaration Sunday for Florida.

Moody’s Analytics has estimated that the total cost for recovery for Irma is between $64 and $92 billion.

House Republicans reject Kathy Castor amendment to protect DREAMers

President Donald Trump said beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program shouldn’t worry about their future, despite an announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the program will end in six months unless Congress addresses the issue.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted that DACA recipients have “nothing to worry about” despite the fact that his administration is phasing out the program. That news came despite a report from CBS News that the White House had issued a set of talking points on Tuesday affirming that DACA recipient should prepare to self-deport.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Rules Committee voted down an amendment offered by Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor on Wednesday night to protect the so-called DREAMers from deportation.

“Despite the chorus from some Republican lawmakers who say they want to protect DREAMers from deportation, the Republican majority refused to allow my amendment to come to the floor for debate and a vote.  Speaker Ryan and Republicans in Congress appear unwilling to take any step to protect DREAMers despite widespread calls for action from families, churches and businesses across America,” Castor said in a statement Thursday.

“Congress must immediately pass the DREAM Act to provide certainty and stability to these young people and our community. I will fight every day and in every way possible to protect our young DREAMers.  They know no other home but America, and my Republican colleagues and President Trump must live up to their rhetoric and do the right thing and support and pass legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers.”

In her statement, Castor also noted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would accept DACA renewal applications filed through October 5, 2017, for current DACA recipients whose authorizations expire between Sep. 5, 2017 and Mar. 5, 2018.

“If you or someone you know is a DACA student or works with DACA students whose renewal is coming up, they should apply immediately and in any case before the Oct. 5 deadline. These students will be able to stay on DACA for two years,” Castor said.

 

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