U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s moment

By: - January 11, 2019 7:00 am

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. Photo provided by the office of Kathy Castor

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. Photo provided by the office of Kathy Castor

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor has represented Tampa in the House of Representatives for the past dozen years, but her national profile has suddenly gone up. That’s because she’s the chair of a new key panel about climate change in the newly Democratic-controlled House.

“This committee will be critical to the entire Congress’s mission to respond to the urgency of this threat, while creating the good-paying, green jobs of the future,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement naming Castor to head the Select Committee on Climate Change. “Congresswoman Castor is a proven champion for public health and green infrastructure, who deeply understands the scope and seriousness of this threat.”

Castor is uniquely qualified for this moment: The seven-term Congressional representative is an environmental attorney who has served as a Hillsborough County Commissioner in one of the U.S regions that is most vulnerable to sea level rise. She sports a 93 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

It’s a shock, then, that critics from the left have popped up to lambast the committee. They complain that the panel lacks subpoena power to call witnesses and won’t have the ability to craft its own legislation.

“I would have preferred legislative authority and I pressed for subpoena power, but in the end, that’s not going to stop us,” Castor told the Phoenix.  “We need the standing committees of the Congress to move ahead aggressively, and we’re going to hold their feet to the fire to do that.”

National Democratic Party activists, led by New York City freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were instead pushing for Pelosi to create a select committee for the “Green New Deal,” a bold proposal that calls for the U.S. to have 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and to create 10 million new jobs over the next decade through Green New Deal grants and projects.

In an interview with E&E News last month, Castor caught flak for declining Ocasio-Cortez’ demand that the Select Committee on Climate Change ban any member of Congress who takes campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests. Castor suggested that such a declaration would violate the First Amendment. Castor later told the Huffington Post that the comment was “inartful.”

Castor says there won’t be any litmus test for committee members regarding previous campaign contributions, vowing that “we’re going to be transparent and committee members are going to be held accountable for the actions they take.”

“I’m on record for standing up for clean energy and working in the public interest rather than the interests of the fossil fuel industry,” she said, “but to build confidence in my leadership I will not be accepting any funds from fossil-fuel companies or their executives – not that I’ve received very much from them in the past.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Castor has received more than $73,000 from the energy and natural resources sector during her tenure in Congress – $60,000 of that from corporate political action committees.

Castor says she sold off an investment she owned in a mutual fund that was made up mostly of holdings in electricity companies that use natural gas, oil and coal.

She says she was “somewhat” taken aback about the criticism of her record, when she is considered exemplary by virtually every environmental organization in Washington and Florida.

“They need to look at someone’s entire record,” she says of the negative reaction.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, the League of Conservation Voters Vice President for Government Affairs, issued a statement supporting Castor:

“She has been a vocal champion for promoting clean energy, protecting our coasts from offshore drilling and combating change in Florida and across the country as well as a key member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”

Frank Jackalone, senior organizing manager for the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, says Pelosi made a “brilliant choice” in picking Castor.

“Congresswoman Castor has deep experience as an environmental attorney, Hillsborough County Commissioner and member of Congress for seven terms,” he said. “She understands the grave threat that Florida, the nation and the world face as temperatures increase and seas rise.”

In describing the acrimony between supporters of the Green New Deal and the Select Committee on Climate Change, the right-wing Washington Examiner labeled Castor a “moderate” on climate change issues, a label that the Tampa Democrat snickered at when hearing the phrase.

“Maybe I’m moderate in my demeanor,” she quipped.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, Castor’s Democratic colleague, recently co-sponsored legislation that would impose a tax on polluters who release the carbon that’s trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing global warming. It’s a rare climate change bill that has received Republican backing, and Castor says her committee will examine it.

“I think that pricing carbon has to be part of the conversation,” she said. “Also, performance standards (for car fuel efficiency). What the Trump administration has proposed on the rollback of the fuel economy (standards) – that is particularly devastating. That needs to be addressed right off the bat.”

Castor will also continue to serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which should be ripe for investigations into the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency because, she says, it has “taken a hatchet to our environmental protections.”

Her other priorities include health care and tackling the opioid crisis, as well as continuing to investigate internet privacy – or the lack of it.

Castor showed the nation her dogged questioning style when she grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last April in an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. She was the one who got the famous executive to admit that his company collects data on people who’ve never even opened a Facebook account.

“You are collecting personal information on people who do not even have Facebook accounts, isn’t that right?” she asked.

“Congresswoman…I don’t think that’s what we’re tracking,” Zuckerberg replied.

“You have already acknowledged that you are doing that for security purposes and commercial purposes. You’re collecting data outside of Facebook. When someone goes to a website and hits ‘like’ or ‘share,’ that data is being collected by Facebook, right? Correct? Yes or no?”

“That’s right,” Zuckerberg admitted.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.