U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is excited about the energy that Andrew Gillum brings to the Democratic ticket as the party’s nominee for governor.
He is less enthusiastic about some of the ideas Gillum ran on to win his primary.
Take Gillum’s call to abolish the agency known as ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — “in its current form.” Nelson isn’t on board.
“I don’t want to abolish ICE. I want to abolish Trump,” Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. “ICE is merely the administrative agency. It’s the policies in that agency” that are the problem.
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What about Gillum’s support for universal healthcare, often called Medicare for all? “I’ve got enough trouble just trying to save Obamacare,” Nelson said. “I’m into results.”
A $15 minimum wage?
“I have supported a $12 minimum wage,” Nelson said, “but I am certainly open to suggesting anything that will improve the lot of the average working man.”
Nelson has staked his political career — and, perhaps, the Democratic Party’s chances at winning the U.S. Senate — on the assumption that a purple state prefers a moderate politician with a penchant for crossing the aisle. “One of America’s most independent senators,” a recent ad touted.
But his party received a jolt last month when Democratic voters picked Gillum in the gubernatorial primary over a more moderate choice, Gwen Graham, and three others. Suddenly, Nelson, 75, is sharing the spotlight with a 39-year-old African-American mayor backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders who ran and won on an unapologetically progressive agenda.
After his stunning victory, Gillum declared a “political revolution” was afoot.
The coming months will determine: Is Nelson out of step with this movement?
“He’s bringing a lot of new energy to the table and I think it’s going to produce more African Americans, I think it’s going to produce more young people,” Nelson said. “And hopefully I might have some value that I bring to the ballot as well.”
Gillum has advocated for many of the liberal policies en vogue among new age Democrats — some of which Nelson has tried to distance himself from as he battles for Florida’s middle.
“Some of the people in this race for governor believe we’ve got to run as Republican light in order to win Florida,” Gillum said at an August rally with Sanders. “Our voters are going to stay home if they have to choose between someone pretending to be a Republican and someone who is a real Republican.”
Nelson’s opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, has already tried to lump the two together. Scott, like Gillum opponent Ron DeSantis, has thrown the word “socialist” around a lot to describe the Democratic ticket.
“This election offers Floridians a clear choice: continue the success of the last eight years, or embrace the job-killing socialist policies of Senator Nelson and Andrew Gillum,” Scott tweeted last week.
Independent fact-checking website PolitiFact deemed it False to call Gillum’s agenda socialist.
On Tuesday, Scott’s campaign said Nelson was “all over the place” when it came to Gillum.
“Last week Nelson said Gillum’s positions are mainstream,” spokesman Chris Hartline said. “Now he’s disavowing them.”
Gillum’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For his part, Nelson has certainly embraced Gillum while maintaining his distance on contentious issues. Marijuana is one of them. Gillum wants to legalize marijuana, which is still categorized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as being illegal and having no medical use.
Nelson backs medical marijuana, including in smokable form. This week he unveiled a bill that allows the Department of Veteran Affairs to prescribe marijuana for its patients. But he doesn’t support full legalization.
Gillum has also advocated for Trump’s impeachment. Nelson won’t go that far.
Nelson rightfully points out that nearly all these topics are federal in nature, meaning likely outside of the next governor’s purview. When it comes to areas Gillum could affect, Nelson said he thinks they are more closely aligned.
“Look at the things that we agree on and look at the things that he has jurisdiction on that we agree,” Nelson said. “Take for example, healthcare. Andrew certainly agrees that we ought to expand Medicaid for the 800,000 [would-be eligible Floridians].”
Though Nelson won’t get behind some of Gillum’s proposals, he has already shown a willingness to cede where the future of the party may be headed. At last month’s post-election unity rally in Orlando, the elder statesman offered to speak first, leaving the headlining slot for the fresh face of the Democratic Party.
“I’m entirely comfortable with Andrew,” Nelson said Monday. “And he with me.”
Steve Contorno can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow @scontorno.