WASHINGTON -- The world’s greatest deliberative body faces monumental decisions on issues ranging from crushing debt to nukes in Iran. But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is more likely to be seen fighting monster snakes.
During 12 years in the Senate, the Florida Democrat has maintained a tight focus on the state, rarely missing an opportunity to exploit headlines or take up populist causes, whether sounding alarms over Burmese pythons in the Everglades or Chinese drywall or demanding pensions for ex-Negro League ballplayers in Tampa.
“He is a connoisseur of low-hanging fruit,” said Florida Republican strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich. “The best way to win elections is to not do anything hard. Take the easy issue of the moment, kind of the effervescence, climb all over it and then wait for the next one. You can always find Bill Nelson on the side of the momentary majority, well down in front near the cameras.”
After former NFL players were arrested in Miami on charges of cashing fraudulently obtained tax-refund checks, Nelson traveled there this month to meet a victim. When debate heated up over extending low interest rates on student loans, Nelson visited college campuses in Gainesville and Tampa.
Toxic playgrounds? Nelson files bill to ban arsenic-treated wood. Cops shot in St. Petersburg? Nelson seeks funding for high-tech equipment that can “see through” walls. Newspaper story about high rents for military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base? Nelson demands congressional investigation. Gas prices up? Nelson calls for a crackdown on oil speculators.
“It’s your responsibility no matter how small it is to stand up for what you think is right,” Nelson said. “Someone who shirks that kind of duty is not representing their people.”
Nelson, who is 69 and seeking a third term, insists he’s been involved in big issues, citing health care, the aftermath of the BP oil spill and helping secure billions for Everglades restoration. Yet even among Florida Democrats, his actions get a knowing eye roll.
“He needs to be more ambitious, stronger and more active in going after the big targets,” said Larry Thorson, a liberal blogger in Miami Beach, who cited one target as Wall Street reform. “I certainly will vote for him, but enthusiastically? No.”
‘Fighting for Florida’
The constituent work keeps Nelson in favor at home while he cultivates a less partisan image by avoiding the spotlight in Washington on tougher national matters. Nelson’s goal seems to be to offend no one.
When Barack Obama became the first president to declare support for gay marriage, Nelson played it safe: “I have a record fighting against discrimination and standing up for people’s civil rights based on their sexual orientation. I believe marriage should be left to the states, and Florida voted on same-sex marriage in 2008.”
The vote was in favor of a ban. Though you wouldn’t know from the statement, Nelson thinks marriage should be between a man and woman.
“Are you saying Bill Nelson is risk-averse?” deadpanned Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “In some ways it serves him pretty well. By not being sort of a party leader on some issues he doesn’t get a lot of the grief that comes with that in terms of giving his opponents fodder. He’s not usually on the firing line.”