Bill Nelson is far from my favorite Democrat. As a high school student in 1990, I campaigned tirelessly against Nelson for Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay in the Democratic Primary for Governor. In 1994, I voted for Karen Gievers in the primary for Insurance Commissioner (Nelson went on to win a close shave win over Republican Rep. Tim Ireland in the fall) and in 2000 I was hopeful that Nelson would be seriously challenged in the US Senate primary by a more liberal candidate. As a progressive, I see Nan Rich as the only natural Democratic candidate currently running or openly considering a run for Governor. However, the recent comparisons between Bill Nelson and Charlie Crist by fellow liberals is way off the mark. We’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks on this site dissecting Crist’s record, something we promise to continue doing. But let’s look at Nelson, who while not a progressive is not a Charlie Crist styled conservative either. In fact, while his demeanor may be grating on many and his history is one of a moderately conservative Democrat, in recent years he’s been ahead the curve on some issue which may surprise progressives.
For years, I saw Nelson as an heir to the Bill Gunter legacy which was a corporate driven, insurance industry, anti-consumer oriented Democrat. But since becoming a Senator, Nelson has proven that as the only Democratic holdover from the golden era of Florida politics, that he has moved his ideology and voting record towards protecting the state and the legacy of those glorious years.
Florida has undergone a metamorphosis politically since the mid 1990s. Republicans, most of whom have little reverence, knowledge or curiosity about the state’s history have taken charge dominating all levels of state government and influencing national elections as well. During this period of time the GOP has developed a lock step mentality which has put ideology over competence and the interest of the national party above those of the state. This is in direct contrast to the Democrats who ran the state in the 1970s and early 1980s in many cases with Republican assistance and in-spite of some very politically motivated resistance within the Democratic Party.
Bill Nelson is not an Askew Democrat. I certainly wish he was, but he is the last link we have with an era of competence, and problem solving. An era when growing Florida in a responsible and progressive manner was stressed and a long term view of sustainability was promoted. As a Senator, Nelson has accumulated a left of center voting record which included critical support for the Affordable Health Care Act (despite opinion polls that showed it as unpopular in the state) and support for President Obama’s economic initiatives which prevented us from plunging into depression. Nelson has voted consistently on important environmental issues including opposition to offshore drilling and funding Everglades restoration. He has also been a fairly reliable supporter of gun control legislation going back to his time on State Cabinet. While on some issues he strayed from the party during the Bush years, by and large he was a far more reliable D vote than other southern Democratic Senators he served with during the Bush Presidency.
Bill Nelson is not Reubin Askew, Bob Graham or Buddy MacKay. But he is closer to them then he is to Charlie Crist or to Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Thrasher, Tom Feeney and any number of other recent Republicans who have shown little care or regard for the history or needs of this state. Nelson has placed in many cases the needs of Florida’s fragile ecosystem over short term commercial concerns. Senator Nelson was one of just two members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation to receive 100% score from the League of Conservation voters in the first session of the 112th Congress (Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the other). Nelson has stood strongly on protecting Florida’s water supply and preventing offshore drilling, as well as drilling on federal lands within Florida. As time has moved on he has moved to the left on every practical issue that effects the quality of life for Floridians, and has become a reliable partisan vote on almost every hot-button issue of the day.
Senator Nelson understands Florida, and while he’s not perfect he’s much better versed than just about anyone to what this state once was and could be once again. Nelson represents a throwback of sorts to better days in Florida and while he would not be my favored candidate for Governor necessarily were he to run, he would be a better option for progressives and people who care about the state than either Charlie Crist or Rick Scott. While he’s far from my first choice for Governor, he is not the disaster some liberals claim either.