1. Florida Politics

On the run with Sen. Bill Nelson, no signs of slowing down

“I feel like I’m still at peak performance,” the Florida senator says.
Sen. Bill Nelson runs along American Beach on Amelia Island south of Fernandina Beach on Sept. 2. (WILL VRAGOVIC | Times)
Published Sep. 22, 2017
Updated Sep. 22, 2017

AMELIA ISLAND — The silver Cadillac pulled into the lot, desolate on a Saturday morning, waves swishing across the beach in the distance, past the boardwalk and the dunes. Behind pillows of blue-grey clouds, the sun dozed.

“Wanna sip of Gatorade?”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson stepped out of the car and held up a bag of drinks. He wore a grey T-shirt, blue Nike shorts and sneakers that a saleswoman had promised would feel like running on marshmallows. A brace covered his left knee.

“I start out very slow to warm up,” he said, almost apologetically, to a reporter neither accustomed to being up so early on a Saturday nor jogging. But it was a spectacular morning, a week before Hurricane Irma’s wrath, and Nelson agreed to the intrusion.

“This is really good because it’s soft here,” he said, finding a spot just above the hard-pack sand, where the miniature shells collect. Easier on the knee.

“All right,” he said, “let’s go.”

• • •

Nelson, who turns 75 on Sept. 29, has been around politics a very long time. For years he has been a unique species in Florida — the only statewide elected Democrat — and now he’s campaigning for a fourth, six-year Senate term. He would be 82, two years shy of the current oldest senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, who is considering running again next year.

At what point does a politician hang around too long? Does age matter in an era when voters in November elected the oldest president in history? Does it matter in Florida, the state with the highest population of senior citizens?

Nelson’s expected opponent is Republican Gov. Rick Scott. At 64, Scott doesn’t have a generational argument but he entered elective politics in 2010, contrasting with Nelson’s career, which began in 1972. Nelson can counter that he’s built up experience. He’s the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee and second on Armed Services.

“If I can’t be at peak performance, I shouldn’t be doing it,” Nelson said from a park bench in Fernandina Beach the day before the run. “I feel like I’m still at peak performance. I don’t have any plans that I’m going to stay there forever. I’m not going to be a Robert Byrd.”

Sen. Bill Nelson stretches on the boardwalk before starting his run along American Beach on Amelia Island south of Fernandina Beach on Sept. 2. (WILL VRAGOVIC | Times)

So he keeps jogging, doing push-ups and crunches, eating “nuts and twigs” and swigging low-calorie lemon-lime Gatorade. “Exercise is just part of my life,” he said.

Allowing a reporter and photographer to come along may serve a political aim. But it also revealed layers of someone with a reputation for middle-of-the road blandness — at once recognizable and hazy. “That’s Bob Graham,” a man on the beach told the woman next to him as Nelson chugged by.

He visits Amelia Island a couple times a year and considers American Beach the finest in the state. During segregation, it was the only place in the area where blacks were allowed; today the remnants of the community are fading, small homes demolished for expensive condos and oceanfront homes, one owned by author John Grisham.

The sun poked through the clouds and the heat snuck up fast. Nelson lamented forgetting sunglasses but kept moving across the sand and shells. “I could start out with Psalm 100,” he said. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord … .” He likes to recite scripture when running. He prays for his family and sometimes composes speeches.

“Faith is pretty much the essence of mine and Grace’s being,” Nelson said, referring to his wife, who he married in 1972 and raised two children with. After the honeymoon, Nelson learned a state representative from Melbourne was retiring and jumped at the race. He served six years in the Legislature then moved to Congress, where he climbed to a leadership position on the space subcommittee.

NASA at the time was developing plans to allow non-professional astronauts into space and Nelson began preparing, hoping for a leg-up if the opportunity ever came.

Then-Congressman Bill Nelson, D-Fla., undergoes a stress test at Johnson Space Center as part of training for his flight into space on Space Shuttle Columbia. (Courtesy of Bill Nelson)

“That meant more than simply reading books and visiting the Cape. If I was going to speak about the space program accurately in Congress, I wanted to feel what the astronauts felt,” he wrote in a 1988 memoir Mission.

“I started a regimen of physical conditioning that included running at least four miles every day, plus workouts in the gym. … In an Air Force F-16 jet, flying over the bombing test range in south Florida, I asked the pilot to pull the max Gs. For fifteen seconds in a left turn, we pulled nine times gravity. The pressure was so intense that my oxygen mask was sagging off my face.”

On Sunday Jan. 12, 1986, payload specialist Nelson and seven other men blasted off in Space Shuttle Columbia.

“I got into the best shape of my life at age 44. I was on top of everything and quick mentally,” Nelson said on American Beach. “I didn’t want to give that up.”

Ten days after Columbia landed, Challenger lifted off into a clear Florida sky. Nelson watched from his congressional office in Washington, reliving the experience with staff then recoiling in horror. “My mind did not want to accept what my eyes were seeing. I kept waiting to see the Challenger emerge out of the smoke,” he wrote.

Nelson, a fifth-generation Floridian born an only child in Miami and raised in Melbourne, has endured personal tragedy. His father died of a heart attack when he was 10. His mother had ALS and died when he was 24. “Through those tough times your faith sustains you,” he said. “My mother’s heart wouldn’t quit so apparently I inherited that part of the family genes.”

In July 2015, a routine exam revealed Nelson had prostate cancer, though no symptoms, and he successfully underwent surgery that same month. “It wasn’t cataclysmic. Naturally, I said my prayers. But it was just another day in the life.”

A few years ago, Nelson had his left knee replaced, which is why he wears the brace. He avoids running on pavement, sticking to the grass near the Marine Corps War Memorial when in Washington or the golf course at his Orlando condominium. He and former Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican, used to live in the same Orlando neighborhood and Nelson would sometimes stop by after a run to shoot the bull. In Washington, Nelson made post-jog visits to Al Gore’s house after the 2000 election. “I just wanted Al to know I loved him. You know, that was a tough time.”

• • •

Senator Bill Nelson runs along American Beach on Amelia Island south of Fernandina Beach on Sept. 2. (WILL VRAGOVIC | Times)

“Okay, now I’m warm,” Nelson said, picking up the pace on the beach.

An ultralight plane cruised low over the water and a man in a four-wheeler came from behind. “He’s not only picking up trash; he’s checking for turtle nests,” Nelson said, veering off into a detailed explanation how loggerheads are hatched and their precarious journey to sea.

Nelson has a folksy manner and Old Florida drawl — which he can turn up while campaigning in less Democratic parts of the state. He acknowledged that looking healthy helps with voters. “They kind of like the spaceman thing.”

As a boy he raised cattle and played sports. He was poised to be the starting quarterback senior year at Melbourne High but was elected president of Key Club International and flew all over the country. He went to the University of Florida and was elected freshman class president but transferred to Yale. There, he was classmates with Bob Woodward, the Watergate journalist, and a member of the secret society Book and Snake.

Bill Nelson, left, with his childhood friend, Kim Hammond, who would go on to be a star quarterback at Florida State, played professionally and became a judge in Flagler County. He died in July 2017 at age 72. (Courtesy of Bill Nelson)

“I was a little country boy. They’d say, ‘You sound like a hick’ and then I’d go home in the summer and they’d say, ‘You sound like a Yankee.’ ”

In Washington, Nelson sounds like a moderate.

Republicans repeatedly attempt to paint him as a liberal out of step with Florida but Nelson has continued to win re-election. The 2018 attacks have already started, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee running a Spanish-language ad in August that said Nelson is cozy with murderous Latin American leaders — a claim PolitiFact Florida rated Pants on Fire.

“This is going to be a tough one and I’ve got to be on my toes,” Nelson said. He squinted at the Fitbit on his wrist.

When he entered politics, the divide between Democrats and Republicans wasn’t that great. “It was that way up until the (Newt) Gingrich crowd came in with their slash and burn, in-your-face kind of politics,” Nelson said.

“Do I get discouraged? Of course. But that’s just a challenge to me and that’s why I know I’m in the right place to be running again. With all this craziness, I can’t walk away.”

He stressed bipartisanship, talking of working with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (age 46) on state issues and even conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. During the 2013 government shutdown, which made Cruz the ire of many Republicans, Grace Nelson ran into him in the Capitol basement and invited him to dinner. They bonded over NASA, Nelson telling war stories about his shuttle training. “Ted and I still get along today,” he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson shakes hands with Paula Ferreira in Fernandina Beach on Sept. 1. At age 74, Nelson is one of the most physically fit senators at the Capitol. (WILL VRAGOVIC | Times)

Nelson says he maintains a simple diet, limiting intake of red meat, eschewing soda. He switched from regular Gatorade to G2, the low-calorie version. He avoids gluten. A typical dinner is fish or chicken with vegetables and rice. Dessert is yogurt with fruit. On the campaign trail, where politicians are prone to eating junk and sleeping erratically, Nelson will dip into Wendy’s for a baked potato with butter. He’ll try to make it home most nights to sleep in Orlando.

He says his weight hasn’t changed much over the years, somewhere between 157 and 161 pounds.

Nelson likes to rib colleagues about fitness. He’ll go up to Sen. Cory Booker, a 48-year-old Democrat from New Jersey who played tight end for Stanford, and grab his arm — “Cory, it’s getting flabby.” In December, Nelson had Commerce Committee members in his office and talk turned to push-ups.

“Before I knew it, we were on the ground pumping them out,” Booker recounted on social media. “I would now probably write about how he whooped me, left me huffing and puffing as he eased right into the meeting not breathing hard at all. But to write something like that would be embarrassing and quite humbling so I won’t (but he did).”

Nelson pounded out 46 push-ups in front of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., after losing a Stanley Cup bet in 2015. In 2012, during a “Let’s Move” event with First Lady Michelle Obama in Orlando, Nelson did 50 push-ups in front of 1,500 people. When a reporter earlier this year floated the possibility of a Democratic challenger, Nelson said, “You want to do a contest on pull-ups or push-ups?”

• • •

After 35 minutes, the beach run ends near a cluster of women doing yoga. Nelson’s face is red and he wipes sweat on his sleeve. But he’s not winded and walks up a bank of sand to a pavilion for stretching. “Go Gators!” he shouts to a young woman who is wearing a Florida T-shirt and riding a horse.

He kicks his leg up on a picnic table and talk turns to Donald Trump, who gave Nelson $2,000 for his last re-election campaign. But the president snubbed Nelson during a recent NASA bill signing, calling on others to talk, including Cruz and Rubio. Finally, Vice President Mike Pence nudged Trump.

“Well, he’s a Democrat. I wasn’t going to let him speak,” Trump said to laughter. Nelson described the bill and added, “We’re going to Mars.”

“I love that,” Trump replied, shaking Nelson’s hand.

Nelson abruptly cuts short the story and drops to the pavement for 25 push-ups to finish his workout. He picks himself off the ground and heads for the car.

“Let’s get that Gatorade.”

Sen. Bill Nelson pauses on the boardwalk before starting his run along American Beach on Amelia Island south of Fernandina Beach on Sept. 2. At age 74, Nelson is one of the most physically fit senators at the Capitol. (WILL VRAGOVIC | Times)