1. Opinion

Times recommends: Bill Nelson for U.S. Senate

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Published Oct. 9, 2018

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has built a commendable career in public service as a moderate who steadily works in a bipartisan fashion on issues important to Floridians. Now he faces his most formidable opponent in Gov. Rick Scott, who has consistently sided with the wealthy and the well-connected as he has eroded the interests of working families. Nelson has served Floridians well and deserves a fourth term.

Nelson, 76, has a long record of steady, ethical service in public office that Scott cavalierly dismisses by calling for congressional term limits. The Democrat's resume includes six years in the Legislature, a dozen years in the U.S. House and six years as state insurance commissioner before being elected in 2000 to the Senate. In recent years, he has been criticized for taking on smaller, nonpartisan issues such as Chinese drywall, caller identification fraud and the dangers of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. But that hardly reflects the breadth of his contributions.

For years, Nelson has been an effective voice against oil drilling and for protecting the Everglades and promoting space exploration. He is Florida's most vigilant guardian of our precious coasts, helping negotiate the law that bans drilling within 235 miles of Tampa Bay's beaches until 2022 and blocking multiple efforts to weaken those protections. His trip on the space shuttle in the 1980s provided him a unique platform to advocate for NASA and an aerospace industry critical to the state.

Nelson also came through on difficult votes that moved the nation in the right direction. He supported the stimulus plan during the economic collapse, the Affordable Care Act that significantly expanded health care to more Floridians, and the agreement aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons that President Donald Trump recklessly scrapped. Nelson also recognizes the importance of foreign trade to Florida's economy, and he cites one example after another of businesses in this state being hurt by the president's tariffs.

Scott, 65, cannot be counted on to stand up for Floridians on any of those issues. He fought the Affordable Care Act to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost, and the state is still fighting it. Florida is one of just 16 states that have not accepted federal Medicaid expansion money, losing out on billions in federal dollars and depriving hundreds of thousands of low-income residents of health care. Scott has avoided speaking out against the president's tariffs or dangerous foreign policies.

Now that he is running for the Senate, Scott wants voters to forget about much of his tenure as governor. He brags about record education spending and student achievement, but under this governor the state cut more than $1 billion in spending on public schools during the recession. It also significantly cut tax money for school maintenance and never restored it. Public schools are so starved for new money that voters in 10 counties approved school tax referendums in August, and Hillsborough County voters will consider taxing themselves in November as kids and teachers sit sweltering in schools with broken air conditioning systems.

Scott also has recast himself as an environmentalist, supporting a new reservoir in South Florida that will clean and store water while allocating millions in spending to cope with another algae bloom. Yet his administration gutted growth management, starved water management districts and diverted money intended to buy and preserve sensitive lands.

There is example after example of this cynical campaign packaging. Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high speed rail shortly after taking office. Now he supports a train that would connect Orlando to Tampa. He wants Floridians to have access to health care, yet he opposed accepting billions in Medicaid expansion money to cover hundreds of thousands of low-income Floridians. He cites the creation of new jobs, but many who live outside urban areas are worse off than when Scott took office.

Scott's record on individual rights is particularly dismal. He advocated drug testing for state employees and welfare recipients. He pursued a purge of voter rolls and limits on early voting in ways that disenfranchised minority voters. He signed into law limits on abortion rights. Those efforts were blocked by the courts or other elected officials. But Scott continues to defend an arbitrary clemency process that deprives more than 1 million felons who have completed their sentences the right to vote. Voters will have an opportunity to correct that situation by approving a constitutional amendment in November.

In one campaign ad, Scott declares "Washington has its own brand of corruption" in a shot at long-term members of Congress like Nelson. Here's the brand of corruption embodied by Scott: He is the former CEO of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain that later paid a record fine for Medicare fraud. He is the first Florida governor who used taxpayer money to settle public records cases filed against him, totaling roughly $1 million.

Scott also is the first governor to use a blind trust to manage his personal assets in an attempt to avoid conflicts of interests. Yet Senate finance disclosure forms show he is much wealthier than previously known. Public records also show Scott's blind trust and his wife invested at least $3 million in a credit fund for the parent company of the firm that wants to build the rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

These are anxious times in Washington with an undisciplined, unpredictable president coping with the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It is imperative that the Senate act responsibly as a bipartisan check on Trump's worst impulses. The governor has put some distance between himself and the president in the heat of the campaign but he was an early supporter and would be no help building consensus in a time of crisis.

Nelson can be a voice of reason as a Democrat who works with Republicans and avoids making headlines. His record in public office, commitment to centrist values and personal integrity are well established. The nation needs measured, sensible voices in the U.S. Senate to respond with a bipartisan consensus to whatever comes in the uncertain future ahead. It does not need another Trump enabler. For U.S. Senate, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bill Nelson.


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