At the Table: The Man in the Middle—of Everything
Unlike many of his Republican peers in the last election, Mike Castle kept his seat in Congress, largely because he stays squarely in the center. Politics—and a minor stroke—may not have affected the way he does his job, but they may affect future decisio
Photograph by Tom Nutter
Delaware Today sat down with eight-term U.S. Representative Mike Castle on November 22, exactly two months after he suffered a minor stroke.
Castle decides we'll eat in the modest conference room of his Wilmington office at Christina Centre, so staffer Kaitlin Hoffman escorts DT to the cafeteria, then orders a BLT for her boss. We're surprised, considering bacon is likely not on the diet of someone who has suffered a stroke.
The cafeteria worker announces he's out of bacon.
"Do they know who this is for?" we ask, teasing. "Aren't you going to tell them who you work for?"
"Oh, he wouldn't like that," she says.
Hoffman is ready to change the order, but in a flash, the server produces a container of freshly fried bacon.
We pay for the BLT, a cup of soup, a bag of chips and a Diet Pepsi, for a whopping total of $5.50, then head downstairs to meet Castle.
The 67-year-old congressman appears as healthy, energetic and sharp as ever, though he's moving gingerly because he tweaked his back while retrieving his newspaper.
When reminded that DT would have paid for his meal at one of the nearby power lunch spots, Castle unscrews the cap on his soft drink, grins, then says, "Guess I'm a cheap date."
DT: How are you feeling?
MC: I feel fine, except for my back, which I threw out this morning. I had a stroke in late September. A minor stroke. I had no repercussions from it at all. So that's the good side of it. The down side is I've never really had a health issue at all before. So it's sort of new to have something to really worry about and that kind of thing. You think about how you can prevent this in the future or whatever. All the sudden my bad knee wasn't the end of the world anymore.
DT: What's wrong with your knee?
MC: I hurt it in college. It's been off and on. It's always sore. It hurts me running and everything.
DT: We read that you had two mini strokes. Was it one minor stroke?
MC: I don't know. I'm not 100 percent sure I understand this. Jane, my wife, would be a better interview than I am. But I think when it went to the brain, it went through the thalamus. There may have been two minor strokes or whatever, but it was all the same affect. That's all I know.
DT: Have doctors told you what caused it?
MC: Well, they don't know for sure. But they think what caused it is the fact I have a— you're really asking the wrong guy—I have a hole in my heart between ventricles, which allowed whatever was in my system to go from one ventricle to the other. The first ventricle would send whatever it is in your blood to your lungs where it would dissolve, whereas the second ventricle allows it to get into a vein and it would go to the brain. I don't have particularly high cholesterol or clogged veins or arteries or anything like that. It was just something in my blood that got in there and then went from one side to the other. I think it's called PFO. And what they can do, and I haven't made this decision yet, is they can put about… Everybody is born with this. It's part of the birthing process. You're born with this hole and it heals in about 75 percent of people. Twenty-five percent have it. And it can lead to something like this. They can go up through my leg—it's an outpatient procedure—and put a device that closes the hole. There's a little bit of controversy in the medical community as to whether they should do this or not. Or just go with blood thinners or whatever and I'm trying to work my way through that. I'm just a lawyer. (He laughs.) And dealing with doctors who don't agree is very difficult for me. But we're trying to get the right answers so I can make the decision as to what to do. And that's to prevent it from happening again.
DT: You've always appeared to take good care of yourself. You always seem to have plenty of energy…
MC: I've never had a weight issue and I've always worked out and been in fairly good shape, so I was surprised. But it did happen and it's a wakeup call for sure. As it stands, which is now two months later, I don't have a lot of physical affects from it. I fortunately never lost the ability to use any part of my body or communicate or anything of that nature. Which is fortunate, because these things can be a lot worse. Tedy Bruschi, the linebacker for the Patriots, had the exact same thing.
DT: Do people still ask you about it wherever you go?
MC: Oh, yeah. They say, 'We hope you're feeling better.' People congratulate me. I don't know if they're congratulating me on being up and around… (He laughs.) I hope you don't mind me munching on potato chips—there are no limits on my diet.
DT: No restrictions? Well, you were doing everything right to begin with, right?
MC: Exactly. In a way, you kind of wish you had some problems you could address. That's not necessarily the case.
DT: You said it's a wakeup call. What is it a wakeup call for? You said there wasn't much you could have done to prevent it.
MC: Watch your health. Get your checkups. All those I pretty much did, but I never had somebody check for the possibility of strokes or anything like that.
DT: How often do you run? How far? Do you race?
MC: First off, very slowly. (He grins.) I used to run two to three times a week. Probably on average about three miles. Every now and again I'll get third place in an age group, solely because I'm the third entry in the age group. No, I don't race.
DT: How has the stroke affected your life?
MC: My whole modus operandi during an election is to do everything I did when I first ran. I do the joint appearances. I try to make all the parades, all the appearances, whatever. I guess about three weeks there I was knocked out entirely. And then I came back and was able to do a few of those things, but on a more limited basis. So, it affected that. But, since the election, you know, I've been basically working. We're back in special session and I've been working full time. So it's had no real affect, as far as that is concerned.
DT: If you were to suffer further health problems and were forced to retire, do you worry about who would replace you? The affect on the party in Delaware? That kind of stuff?
MC: I don't think about it much. And if I did, I'd be much more worried about the health issues than the replacement. (He laughs.) For Congress, there are special elections, unlike the Senate, where you appoint somebody. So that would be up to the parties and the voters. It's really no different than if I decided to retire. I have no plans on that right now. I make a decision about running again, usually after about a year (after an election). This time next year is when I start to formulate that decision, which has a whole lot of factors involved.
DT: Such as?
MC: How long do I want to do it? Am I being effective? I've always been very aware of the fact that I'm the only one representing Delaware in the House. Can I do it better than anybody else who might run against me? You know, just considering a lot of the issues like that, as you would make any decision. Except in my case when you have to run for your job every two years and you have to make the same decision.
DT: I read that there were Castle '08 campaign buttons at Return Day…
MC: Not my idea. We're going to change the constitution and I'll run for governor again.
DT: I still hear people slip and say "Governor Castle." Do you still get that?
MC: Oh, yeah. I get a couple things. I get that a lot. It's a compliment. It was a wonderful job. I also am mixed up with Carper a lot. Not because of appearance so much, it's because we had similar jobs. He was a Congressman and Governor and Senator and I was a Governor and a Congressman. We kid about it, in speeches and that kind of thing. I get mixed up with Senator Roth. People ask me where the dog is. People sort of know who you are, but they aren't sure of which one you are, or whatever.
KH: Someone called him Senator today.
DT: Anything to that?
MC: Well, no. I think part of that is not getting mixed up with Carper. It's just going to Washington, people aren't sure of what you are or what a Congressman is. Sometimes people aren't sure what to call a Congressman because it's a long word. So they call you Senator.
DT: What has been the big deal over the years with people talking about you running for U.S. Senate? Is that still being talked about now? How do you feel about it when it comes up?
MC: When I first went to Washington, Bill Roth was approaching 70-ish and I thought he might retire in two years, which he chose not to do. So I continued in the House. And then it got to be eight years and he chose to run again. And then Tom Carper ran against him and beat him. At this point, I am very satisfied with my career in the House. I feel that we've done a lot of things for Delaware that would not have happened if I had not had the chance to be there. I've never been one to get too stuck on seniority. You can get things done whether you're a senior or not. So I don't know how big an issue that really is, but you do get to know people and you do get to know your way around. I have a staff that knows its way around and I do. And so, I think we have the ability to achieve what we have to in the House. So because of Bill's decisions and my longevity and seniority in the House, I'm perfectly happy having been there and staying there.
DT: Looking at the recent election, you usually get 70 percent of the vote in an election. What was the reason that you didn't do that well this time?
MC: The overwhelming reason, for sure, is the year that we are in. This was a very Democratic year. I had many fellow Republicans, particularly moderate Republicans in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and northern Midwestern states who lost, outright. Who went from pretty big margins to losses. And there were a lot of people who said they wanted to send President Bush a message. I am very pleased with the result, even though my own numbers were not that high, the differential between my Democratic opponent and me was quite high. I had to deal with the illness in the middle of it all, which made it a, 'Well, how much is this going to hurt?' kind of thing. So I was actually quite pleased with the outcome of the election.
DT: So you think it was primarily the anti-Bush sentiment?
MC: I didn't run into a lot of anti-Republicans or a lot of anti-Mike Castle or anything like that. I ran into "I just don't like what's happening in Washington," and "I don't like what's happening in Iraq." There were some problems with Congress, but they didn't pertain to me, personally. And most people weren't going so far as to cast a vote against me for that reason, because of Duke Cunningham or one of those bad characters.
DT: Didn't voters hear about the presidential veto of your stem cell bill?
MC: Well, exactly. I mean, there was a lot that separated me. The veto on the stem cells is one, but the Terry Schiavo vote was another huge differential. I mean, on most of the ideological votes, we had some degree of separation. I mean, we were fighting to get more money for education and the environment. I was fighting the environmental bills that came along. I work hard in terms of trying to help in education and there are just a lot of issues where I might have a different point of view than the president. I have great concerns about Iraq. I don't have an easy answer to it all. I'm not trying to go back and revisit the original vote to go into Iraq, but I have openly worried about where we're going next and what the outcome will be and what we should be doing, which is a little different than staying the course. All of those things were on the table and part of the vote consideration. I think a lot of people base their vote, not just on the… I mean I think often with the media, the thinking is, well gee, we'll have debates, and we'll have a vote and let people make their decisions. But the bottom line is, that in the case of those of us who have been in office for a number of years, people look back at what did you do, in my case as a state Representative, a state Senator, a Lieutenant Governor, a Governor. I mean, they look at a little more and they judge it on that basis and I think that's very helpful to me. It's helpful to others running for office, too, around Delaware. And they sort of know you. I mean, I'm not saying I've shaken every hand, but you've seen them or they've seen you and they sort of relate you to what's being stated out there. I think it's a little harder to go on the attack, with a purely negative approach in Delaware than it would be in a bigger state, where you wouldn't have quite the same personal contact, even within a Congressional district.
DT: So, have we gone totally Democrat here in Delaware? Is that where we're headed? What's the state of the Republican party in Delaware?
MC: It's hard to judge. On a very local basis, the House of Representatives remains Republican and yet there's been not a lot of movement from the House up to the Senate to replace any of the sitting Senators. We've had some very close gubernatorial elections the last couple of elections, despite the fact that a Democrat won. But I've never been one of those who felt that Delaware is all Democrat, or all Republican. I've always thought the good candidates could win. For years we had Senator Williams and Senator Boggs, two Republican Senators and now we have two Democratic Senators. We've had Republican governors who have won by very substantial margins in their re-elections, Pete and I did. But I think the people of Delaware are capable of voting for either party. I think they're looking at individuals. I do think it's slanted if you start looking further down at county council races, etcetera. It's slanted a little more Democratic than it used to be. And it's reversed, geographically. New Castle County used to be the Republican county and Kent and Sussex were Democratic. Now, it's the other way around. I think it's a question of conservative versus liberal, more than anything else. The parties seemed to have switched their colors a little bit and I think people are voting that way for that reason.
DT: So, what is the state of Delaware's Republican Party, then? Is it in trouble?
MC: There are fewer people today who are willing to financially underwrite the Republican Party, not the candidates, but the Republican Party. And I'm referring to people like John Rollins and Hal Haskell and others who did more of that, so that finances weren't the issue that they are today. So that's a little bit of an issue. The second issue is just attracting and developing candidates. The Democrats have done a much better job doing that than they ever have before. They had all kinds of trouble attracting good young candidates. In the last dozen years or so, I think they've had a series of good, young candidates. But so have Republicans, I mean, a good example is Chris Castagno, who ran for New Castle County Executive, but was not elected. It's very important to attract candidates who can raise money for themselves and get them elected and get them involved with the party. At some point that will happen, and it will probably happen in a year like this, in which the Republicans have the upper hand and then all of the sudden you get people elected at lower levels who then get their foothold in and they can advance from there. I can't tell you when that will happen, but that's probably how it will happen. I've been pleasantly surprised at how attractive the Republican candidates have been in recent years. I cited Chris Castagno, but obviously Ferris Wharton was a very good candidate. The others have been as well, but at this point, it has not, for various reasons, paid off in terms of wins. At some point you've gotta get people into office and then build it from there.
DT: You have your job in Washington to worry about, so how much of the local party stuff is a priority for you? How involved are you?
MC: I'm not that involved. I mean, I try not to get involved in the selection of candidates. I think that's up to the people who are running the party and particularly the Republicans in the state. But I do help with the finances as much as I can. Either raising money for the party or even making direct contributions because I think the party needs to be supported. I thought that the National Republican Committee could have done more for the Delaware Republican Party. One thing that I agree with, with Howard Dean, is his 50-state theory of having people on the ground in all states and dollars on the ground. I just think that's important and I don't think the Republican Party has done a good enough job with that. But I do stay in touch with the people running the party and try to be helpful to them. I also try to be helpful to Republican candidates who are running. As helpful as I can be. I think support by another elected official can only go so far and I understand that, but on the other hand, I think that's part of my responsibility. Try to attract candidates and give them some support. But it's important they have the financial support, too.