Biden, Nelson visit Everglades with heavy dose of politics

With a politically threatened Sen. Bill Nelson at his side, Vice President Joe Biden mugged before the television cameras Monday to tout the Democrats' successes in helping to restore the endangered Everglades.

Biden and Nelson's speeches were short on any new initiatives and focused more on the efforts of President Barack Obama's administration in accelerating and spending more for Everglades restoration projects.

Republicans were invited but none accepted to share the stage with Nelson, Biden or Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings.

From the stagecraft to the recurring Obama administration references to the made-for-TV images of the three politicians air-boating through the Everglades, the event had a strong campaign quality to it as the general-election season starts in the nation's largest battleground state.

"If you're a political official, of which of course the vice president would be a prime example, everything you do is by definition political," said former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who attended the event. "And now that we're in an election year, it becomes more focused."

Right now, the most recent state poll shows that Nelson and the Obama-Biden ticket are leading their Republican rivals in Florida — a must-win for Republicans. But the race will likely tighten and neither Obama nor Nelson has more than 50 percent of the theoretical vote.

Republicans Connie Mack, George LeMieux and Mike McCalister are vying to unseat Nelson — the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida.

Reinforcing the event's campaign-style flavor was Nelson's introduction by Hastings, who received applause for saying the Democrat was about to win his "third term as our United States Senator."

Nelson said he was happy to give Biden "a little glimpse into this extraordinary God's creation."

"The vice president got to see the River of Grass," Nelson said. "And he got to see those alligators. He didn't get to see the Burmese pythons, which we are desperately trying to get rid of and, finally, thanks to this administration, they have stopped the importation of this invasive species. Amen to that."

Biden also touted the administration's successes. He suggested that no Everglades restoration project happened before he and Obama were elected. Biden, though, was referring only to the Everglades restoration projects approved under a federal law passed in 2000.

Biden made no mention of the fact that many were in the permitting and design phase under the previous administration of President George W. Bush. Biden also failed to credit former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in highlight a restoration project in Collier County called Picayune Strand.

Still, environmentalists point out that the Obama's administration has called for more spending and more restoration projects more quickly.

Dawn Shirreffs, Everglades program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group that advocates for restoration, said the visit was important to maintaining support for the project in Washington. "If we're going to keep plugging away, we have to be able to show there has been success and progress,'' she said.

In addition to highlighting the Picayune Strand restoration project, Biden drew attention to other clean-up projects, such as the $400 million plan to replace sections of the Tamiami Trail with a bridge that would allow more water to flow through the historic River of Grass.

For the administration, Everglades restoration is a good way to showcase its environmental bonafides as well as its argument that government spending creates jobs.

Biden noted that the administration has kick started a $1.5 billion investment into re-plumbing the Everglades, which he says has helped fund 6,600 "good-paying jobs" through the Army Corps of Engineers and "and thousands of indirect jobs."

Biden said about 4.3 million tourists visit "the federal portions of the Everglades" and that the current restoration projects underway will produce $46.5 billion in economic activity in Florida.

"What we're talking about here is an economic engine that generates millions of tourists to Florida who are renting hotel rooms, buying food, renting autos, taking out airboats and everything else you can imagine that goes along with it," Biden said.

Also, Biden pointed out, Everglades restoration helps guarantee freshwater for a third of the state's population and a large part of its agricultural industry.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus issued a written statement bashing Biden's "taxpayer funded trip to the swing state of Florida (that) demonstrates how worried the Obama campaign is about its chances in November."

When asked about the criticism, Nelson said that "about 99.5 percent of Floridians know that restoration in the Everglades is important. It has been this administration that has helped us get things moving. And right here this bridge that's being built that'll let the water flow from the north into the Everglades national park. Proof's in the pudding."

But when asked if this was more a political than policy event, Nelson said: "When you see the Everglades, you see the necessity of policy being in action real time."

Miami Herald reporter Curtis Morgan contributed to this story.

Biden, Nelson visit Everglades with heavy dose of politics 04/23/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 23, 2012 5:21pm]

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