Sen. Bill Nelson (D)
Elected: 2000, term expires 2012, 2nd term.
Born: Sept. 29, 1942, Miami .
Education: Yale U., B.A. 1965; U. of VA, J.D. 1968.
Family: Married (Grace Cavert); 2 children.
Military career: U.S. Army, 1968-70; U.S. Army Reserves, 1965-71.
Elected office: FL House of Reps., 1972-78; U.S. House of Reps., 1978-90; FL treasurer, insurance comm. & fire marshal, 1994-2000.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1970-79, 1991-94; Legis. asst., FL Gov. Reubin Askew, 1971; Crew member, Space Shuttle Columbia, 1986.
Bill Nelson was first elected to the Senate in 2000. He grew up in Melbourne, Fla. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was a lawyer and real estate investor who died when he was 14. Nelson likes to recall that his great-grandfather arrived in Florida from Denmark as a stowaway on a ship. From his family home in Rock Point, Nelson could see rockets blast off in the 1950s and 1960s from what is now the Kennedy Space Center. He was active in student government and has always been something of a straight arrow; he doesn’t drink, smoke or swear. He attended the University of Florida for two years, and then graduated from Yale and the University of Virginia law school. After a two-year hitch in the Army, he returned to Melbourne and briefly practiced law and worked on the staff of Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew. In 1972, at age 30, he was elected to the state House of Representatives.
|Bill Nelson (D)||2,890,548||(60%)||($16,116,224)|
|Katherine Harris (R)||1,826,127||(38%)||($9,334,232)|
|Bill Nelson (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (51%), 1988 House (61%), 1986 House (73%), 1984 House (61%), 1982 House (71%), 1980 House (70%), 1978 House (61%)
In 1978, when Republican Rep. Louis Frey retired, Nelson ran for the U.S. House in a district that then included the Space Coast’s Brevard County and most of Orlando’s Orange County. His religious faith and traditional values, his indefatigable campaigning and folksy manner made him popular in an area that was trending Republican. He won the seat 61%-39%; in five succeeding elections, he captured 61% to 73% of the ballots in a district that voted just 29% for Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race. In the House, he became chairman of the Science Committee’s Space Subcommittee, obviously of prime importance to the district. Nelson not only boosted the space program in every possible way but also rode the space shuttle Columbia himself, spending six days orbiting the Earth in early 1986. Less than two weeks later, space shuttle Challenger exploded as it took off. After the Columbia was lost in February 2003, he called for continued manned space flight despite the risks.
In 1989, with the support of leading Florida Democrats, Nelson set out to run against Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, who was not faring well in polls. But in early 1990, some Democrats became antsy about Nelson’s prospects and persuaded Lawton Chiles, who had retired from the Senate in 1988 after three terms, to run. Chiles was always far ahead in their race and won the September primary 69%-31%. Nelson returned to his 77-acre oceanfront home in Melbourne, his political career seemingly over. But in 1994, he found an opening when state Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, a Republican, ran for governor. Nelson was elected in November to an office whose full title was treasurer, insurance commissioner, and state fire marshal, and proceeded to compile an activist record.
Nelson was obviously setting himself up to run for higher statewide office, and his chance came in March 1999, when Republican Sen. Connie Mack said he would not run for re-election in 2000. Mack’s retirement left a seat up for grabs in a state that, as Election Night 2000 returns would show, was closely divided between the parties. Republicans nominated 20-year, Orlando-based Rep. Bill McCollum, one of the House managers of the impeachment of President Clinton.
Washington observers considered the race a contest about the wisdom of impeachment but mostly it was a battle of competing styles. Running his fourth statewide race in 10 years, Nelson consistently led in polls. His easygoing manner contrasted favorably with McCollum’s stiff, often aggressive demeanor. With a long conservative record on abortion rights and gun control, McCollum attempted to moderate his positions but only succeeded in antagonizing his base supporters. His charges that Nelson was a “liberal” and a proponent of “class warfare” proved unconvincing. This was the most expensive Florida Senate race to that point, with the two candidates spending more than $15 million between them. Nelson won 51%-46%. He prevailed 60%-37% in the Gold Coast. In the Interstate 4 corridor, which included McCollum’s congressional district and most of the district that Nelson had represented in the House, Nelson won 51%-46%. In the rest of the state, Nelson lost by only 52%-46%, compared with the 55%-42% ratio by which Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore lost there that year. Folksiness and Florida roots counted.
In the Senate, Nelson has been active on national security issues. In October 2002, he sided with President Bush on the Iraq war resolution. But in defiance of the Bush White House, Nelson in December 2006 traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. He called for aggressive diplomacy with Syria and perhaps Iran, saying: “The costs of failure in Iraq will be catastrophic—in growing threats to us and our allies and in more American and Iraqi lives lost—if we do not awaken to the fact that an aggressive diplomatic effort, not military might, is what is needed to end the sectarian violence in Iraq.” In 2007, Nelson voted in the Foreign Relations Committee for the resolution opposing Bush’s troop “surge” strategy in Iraq. But he looked with favor on military involvement elsewhere, calling in May 2007 for United Nations peacekeeping troops on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border and a no-fly zone over the area. With two Senate colleagues, he met in 2005 with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who told him he would cooperate in keeping Colombian FARC guerrillas from reaching sanctuary in Venezuela.
Since January 2007, Nelson has been chairman of the Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over the space program. After the loss of Columbia, he called for accelerated development of a reusable space vehicle to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. In 2004, Nelson won passage of an amendment calling on NASA to report to Congress on the costs of extending the space shuttle program beyond 2010, but he did not get approval of another amendment requiring NASA to find laid-off shuttle workers similar jobs in the agency. In 2008, he secured an amendment mandating that the agency take no action that would preclude continuing the shuttle program past 2010, in order to leave the decision to the next administration.
After hurricanes hit Florida in August and September 2004, Nelson successfully pushed to get $1 billion for agricultural assistance in the Homeland Security appropriation. Starting in 2005, Nelson worked with Republican colleague Mel Martinez of Florida to block oil and gas exploration in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. In 2007, he and Martinez threatened to block the energy bill unless it barred further seismic exploration off the Florida coast. After Republican Gov. Charlie Crist came out in favor of offshore drilling in June 2008, Nelson continued to oppose it. Then, in September 2008, Nelson said he would back a bipartisan deal allowing some offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, provided it was limited to 125 miles, rather than 50 miles, from the Florida coast.
On other issues important to Florida, Nelson sought a 25% tax credit for home improvements designed to withstand hurricanes. But the bill never gained much traction; neither did one he sponsored to set up a national catastrophe fund to lower insurance costs. In May 2007, his amendment to oppose a $25 per flight surcharge on both commercial airlines and general aviation was defeated 12-11 in committee.
Florida seems to have more than its share of disputes over elections. After the 2006 balloting in Florida’s 13th District raised questions about the dependability of electronic voting machines, Nelson introduced a bill requiring voting equipment to produce a paper record. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Nelson objected vigorously when the Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its national delegates and urged presidential candidates to boycott the state after the Legislature set the state’s primary for January 29 rather than the earliest date permitted by party rules, February 5. He and Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings sued the DNC, but a judge ruled against them. Nelson then pressed for a second primary or a mail-in vote, which the committee refused to pay for, and he tried to have half of the delegates seated, which the DNC resisted. The committee ultimately decided to seat about half of Florida’s delegates.
As a Democratic senator from the nation’s largest politically marginal state, Nelson was mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee in 2004 and 2008 but was not on either short list. He was re-elected in 2006 by a margin that was anything but marginal. He positioned himself well, stoutly opposing Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security. After the Pentagon limited access to military bases for the Boy Scouts, he introduced a resolution supporting the Scouts and embarked on a tour of Florida on their behalf.
In June 2005, two-term Republican Rep. Katherine Harris announced she would challenge Nelson. Polling data indicated that Harris’s prominent role as Florida secretary of state during the disputed 2000 presidential election had left her too unpopular to win, but she enjoyed celebrity status among many rank-and-file Republican voters. Efforts to persuade Gov. Jeb Bush, former House Speaker Allen Bense, and former Rep. Joe Scarborough to run failed, and Harris became the nominee. In February 2006, she accumulated additional baggage when a defense contractor who had illegally contributed $32,000 to Harris’s 2004 House campaign and had asked her for legislative favors pleaded guilty to bribing former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, a California Republican. The next month, Harris announced she would use $10 million of her own money on her campaign; she ended up spending a third of that amount. Staff resignations followed, and Harris was notably absent from a Republican “unity tour” after the September primary. Nelson won in a landslide, 60%-38%. He lost in the Panhandle but carried 57 of 67 counties, including Harris’s home county of Sarasota.