In St. Petersburg this afternoon, Congresswoman Kathy Castor said she understood how the Wall Street bailout in 2008, followed by the federal stimulus plan in 2009, was such a shock to the economic system for so many Americans that it fed the fuel for the creation of the Tea Party.
Castor made her remarks before the Suncoast TIger Bay Club, where she took a retrospective look at what's gone in the country since she was initially elected in 2006. Her gerrymandered district resides mostly in Hillsborough County, but also includes part of downtown and South St. Petersburg as well as a slice of Manatee County.
She began her speech by mentioning how the eyes of the D.C.-based political world are focused on PInellas County, as perhaps the most contested (and contentious) congressional race in Tampa Bay's modern history will climax next Tuesday between Alex Sink, David Jolly and Lucas Overby. Castor said both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill were asking for her prediction on the contest as she was leaving Washington on Thursday. (She thought it would be very close.) She then pivoted to paying tribute to the congressman they're hoping to succeed, Bill Young, whom she said was "an important mentor to me, and a very important partner."
In the fall of 2008, after Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial services industry appeared to be on the brink, Castor said she'll never forget how then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson came before the members of Congress with a two-page bill calling for a $700 billion infusion for Wall Street banks. "That was probably my most unsettling time," she recalled, saying that she was asking where was the financial bailout for homeowners who were losing their residencies because of the foreclosure crisis?
When it came time to vote on the package, which both Barack Obama and John McCain supported just months before the presidential election, Castor voted no, being the lone member of the Florida Democratic delegation to do so, and one of only 63 House Democrats overall to oppose the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.
Just months later, President Obama then came to Congress to push for his economic stimulus bill, still the largest congressional spending bill in U.S. history at $787 billion (later readjusted to $862 billion), which prompted Castor to say that she "somewhat understood the rise of the Tea Party at that time."
Now you've got to do another round of stimulus," but said, adding that she believed the bill (officially known as the American Recovery Act) was "the lifeline that really saved the economy."
Castor then fielded questions from the audience, most of whom appeared solidly in her corner. One Tiger Bay Club member, however, questioned if being in the House minority meant her influence was diminished in Congress. Castor disagreed, saying that while the days of the earmark were over, she has brought home the bacon — so to speak — when it comes to bringing federal funds to the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital and USF. She also said that her advocacy has led to policy changes that didn't cost any federal funds, such as persuading President Obama to broaden access to travel to Cuba, which she said has been a boon to Tampa International Airport.
When asked about Congress' desultory approval ratings, Castor, as she has said in the past, agreed with the public on that take. "If I was polled about the Congress, I'd give them an 'F' grade. They're not addressing the challenges that face the country right now," she said, referring specifically to the lack of movement on both raising the minimum wage and immigration reform.
And she said that the government has potentially overreached on surveillance. "That area is ripe for reform," she said, adding that it's the responsibility of Congress to have constant competent oversight.
The Congresswoman also expressed "great trepidation" regarding the emphasis on private vouchers and charter schools in Florida, specifically how the Florida Legislature has in her eyes spent disproportionate amounts on additions or needed repairs to charter school buildings, while letting public schools deteriorate.
Not everyone in the audience had their question answered. Noted St. Pete conservative David McKalip, in particular, appeared perturbed that Castor bypassed him. "This is not the Tiger Bay Club, this is a pussycat lapdog club," he snarled to CL immediately after the forum. "They're pushing a liberal agenda. They bring their people here to ask questions to make their liberal friends look good." McKalip said if given the chance to ask a question, he would have asked her about President Obama's most recent change to the Affordable Care Act, announced this week.
"I would have pointed out to her that the president has delayed her beloved Obamacare over and over, preventing increased coverage of insurance and preventing getting rid of subpar insurance plans," he said, contending that it was "clearly a political move to protect Democrats."
"Is it more important to protect Democrats' election chances in 2014," he said he would've asked, "or to expand health insurance coverage and get rid of subpar health insurance for Americans?"