BROOKSVILLE — The same message U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has heard from one end of the state to the other, he heard from Hernando County's elected and business leaders over lunch on Thursday.
"There is a frustration bubbling up, almost anger. It's because people are hurting, hurting financially,'' Nelson told about 40 leaders assembled at the Brooksville Regional Hospital.
For the next hour, Nelson listened to the concerns of locals on issues ranging from the Iraq war and the need for affordable health care to alternative energy sources and economic incentive options.
Their theme too was that people are struggling in the current economic atmosphere, which local real estate agent and planning and zoning commission member Bob DeWitt said "looks like a recession.''
Nelson's visit was one in his series of town hall sessions. Starting in Inverness early Thursday, he also visited Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, a property proposed for public purchase. Then he flew to Brooksville midday and was slated to be in Sumter County after that.
The week will culminate in a trip back to Washington where Saturday morning he will make a presentation to the Democratic National Committee "to try to get (the Florida) delegation seated,'' Nelson told the Brooksville group, which responded with applause.
When asked about troop withdrawal in Iraq, Nelson took a long pause, mostly to chew his food. He quipped about how important it was in his job that, "When you see food, you better eat it.''
Then he got serious.
"Pay attention to this presidential race,'' he said. "At the end of the day, whoever is elected … what they will do will be pretty close to the same.''
Nelson predicted any of the three major candidates would likely begin a troop withdrawal after the election because all of them can read the handwriting on the wall about public opinion. "You cannot continue a war unless you have the support of the American people,'' he said.
On the painful topic of the soaring price of gasoline, Nelson said that "whoever is president, they're going to have to get serious.''
He spoke about the need to explore alternative fuel sources and require more conservation. Nelson also noted how the various oil crises over time have been cyclical with solutions found in the short term, then things slid back into crisis when people stopped making the issue a priority.
Greed, skittishness about the possibility of the oil supply going away, the value of dollar and even oil futures speculation have all added to the problem, Nelson said.
While he said he held his nose and voted for the economic stimulus package, he supported other ideas that would have put more people to work but the existing one was "an important symbolic thing for people to know that government was trying to do something.''
But he questioned the logic.
"As one person said to me, 'You're going to send checks out to people so they can go down to the Wal-Mart and buy Chinese goods of which, in order to pay for $160-billion stimulus package, you're having to borrow money from China.' ''
Nelson also spoke out against the logic of cutting educational grant money, noting that the United States can only succeed in a global market with a well-educated workforce and the innovations of technology.
"It's like you're eating your seed corn,'' he said. "You won't have any seed for next year's crop.''
Nelson also thanked the local elected officials for what they do.
Turning to Commissioner Diane Rowden, who helped organize the event, he said, "The big difference between your job and my job, commissioner, is that I can leave town.''
The crowd chuckled.
"You're the front line of defense. Thank you for that,'' the senator said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.