Sen. Bill Nelson's cautious approach comes with heavy emphasis on populist issues

Vice President Joe Biden, left, accompanied by Sen. Bill Nelson,  center foreground, and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., right, visit Everglades National Park in April. Nelson has helped secure billions for Everglades restoration.
Vice President Joe Biden, left, accompanied by Sen. Bill Nelson, center foreground, and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., right, visit Everglades National Park in April. Nelson has helped secure billions for Everglades restoration.
Published May 28, 2012

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.

Police officers 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 a 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 has 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 a 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."

Nelson's profile and questions of clout are coming into focus as he heads into the November election against a Republican yet to be decided.

Though rivals point to his votes for every major Obama initiative, Nelson plays up a centrist image. In a speech before a group of mostly Republican business leaders from Florida, he lamented the loss of Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who was defeated this month by a GOP primary rival who said Lugar compromised too much and lost touch with the state.

Nelson talked repeatedly of his friendship with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the rookie Republican who has enthusiastically engaged in national affairs.

"Fighting for Florida. Always has, always will," Nelson said in an interview, previewing a campaign slogan. He got up for a round of votes, but returned to his office moments later.

"By the way, that's a good summary. Fighting for Florida, always hasssss," he said, drawing out the last syllable in his deep John Wayne voice, "always will."

'The pure vanilla'

Nelson, who grew up in Melbourne and now lives in Orlando, was elected to the Florida House in 1972, the U.S. House in 1978, and has won every election since then except a 1990 run for governor. Democrats were in the start of what would become a long decline, and worried fundraisers rallied around a candidate "who would offend no one, who came from a strategically important region of Florida and who couldn't be labeled as either a liberal or a conservative," read a story in Florida Trend magazine.

"Bill Nelson was the pure vanilla they were looking for."

The report explored the question of whether Nelson was an "empty suit," a label attributed to Stipanovich and illustrated on the magazine cover. It has haunted Nelson, though even Stipanovich concedes he has filled in the suit somewhat.

There are striking parallels. Friends at the time said Nelson came across as a lightweight because he had not taken on a substantial issue as a congressman, instead focusing on his "clients" back home. Nelson lost the Democratic primary to Lawton Chiles, but resurfaced in 1994 by winning the race for state insurance commissioner. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000.

Nelson has been a leading force in keeping oil drilling rigs off the coast of Florida. During the BP oil spill, he fought the company to release live video that showed the problem was much worse. He has been an avid backer of NASA.

"He's been very responsive to the issues that are of particular importance to Florida voters," said former state Sen. Steve Geller, a South Florida Democrat. "You have so many senators who want to keep themselves in contention for president that they tend to ignore the needs of their home state and focus on national headline-grabbing issues."

"It's always sort of a delicate balance," said Betty Koed, the Senate's associate historian. "If you get too involved in national issues and neglect home issues, that can come back to haunt you. The other side is if you just pay attention to state-based issues, you tend not to rise in leadership positions."

His low profile

A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that 33 percent of voters were unsure whether they liked or disliked Nelson — "an unusually low profile for a sitting two-term senator," the pollster observed. Nelson's office dismissed the finding as an outlier. But if the number is even close to that, it may attest to his low profile on hot-button issues.

He is not seen as a forceful voice in debates and cuts a ghostly presence in Capitol halls. On Tuesdays, when reporters swarm to catch senators coming from party lunches, the only glimpse of Nelson is of him exiting a side door into a hallway off-limits to the news media.

The 2009 health care debate illustrated Nelson's safe approach. He pushed to protect cuts in Medicare Advantage, a costly, though popular, program among Florida's retirees, but was less visible on the more sweeping debate. Liberals were upset he did not take a stand on a public insurance option.

"I wish he was a little bit more aggressive in some of his stances, but I understand the constraints he's under," said Wendy Sejour, a Democratic activist in South Florida. "Florida is a purple state. As a liberal, I'm also realistic."

To Nelson, it seems, the mixed electoral map demands the pure vanilla, cautious persona that made him attractive all those years ago as a gubernatorial candidate. The formula has worked election after election. Today, he's the only statewide elected Democrat, pursuing the low-hanging fruit and pining for less contentious times.

"The American people want their politicians to get along," he said. "They don't want them to go off in a corner in a hissy fit and say, 'It's going to be my way or no way.' I think it's one of the things that will come out of this election. The pendulum is swinging back."

Alex Leary can be reached at