Florida's Mr. Nowhere Man Faces a Challenge
This is the year when non-politicians will oust the professionals. Among the longest serving of these career politicians is Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. Nelson, who began practicing law in 1970, was elected as a state representative in 1972 and, except for a stint following his unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial campaign, has been in public office ever since.
This time Nelson's likely Republican opponent will be Gov. Rick Scott. Scott just turned in a required financial disclosure to the U.S. Senate showing that his family wealth exceeded $255 million. I'm sure that will be a point of attack against him. In the liberal mind, it is, after all, a crime to have been successful, even though some of the richest members of Congress are Democrats. What Scott's critics overlook is that he earned every penny of his wealth: he grew up in a working-class family and made his way through college on the G.I. bill after serving in the Navy.
Unlike Nelson, who entered public service in his twenties, Scott first ran for office in his fifties, only after a long and highly successful career in business. Sen. Nelson seems to think of government service as a tenured appointment.
According to the congress.gov website, only one of the bills Nelson sponsored in the current session of Congress actually became law. (That would be "A bill to designate the health care center of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Tallahassee, Florida, as the Sergeant Ernest I. 'Boots' Thomas VA Clinic, and for other purposes.") Having sponsored no successful major bills, so far as I can tell, during his entire 18 years in the Senate, his biggest accomplishment seems to have been flying a NASA space mission 32 years ago. That's why many Floridians like to say he's "Lost in Space."
Sen. Nelson has been called a "ghostly presence" on Capitol Hill, and the charge is resonating with Florida voters. Even though he's into his fifth decade in office, a significant number, when polled, don't know what to make of him.
There's a feeling that Nelson has avoided taking on hard issues. The problem is that hiding out for 40 years doesn't address the big issues America faces, especially when you have a senator who, when he does take a stand, stands with the left. A member of the U.S. Senate should be a leader, especially a senator with Nelson's kind of seniority, but Nelson is often nowhere to be found.
There's one place where Nelson is very much present on Capitol Hill. That would be in voting against President Trump. I can't find a single important vote where Nelson has voted with the president. Despite Florida's voting for President Trump in 2016, Nelson keeps voting with Schumer and Pelosi. In fact, Nelson has voted with Schumer 84% of the time.
Nelson voted against the 2018 Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act. He refused to vote on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. He voted against confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch and will presumably vote against confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. He voted against the Trump tax reform of 2017, even voting not to allow it to come to the Senate floor. He voted more than once against measures that would have abolished Obamacare. He voted against funding for a border wall. He voted against confirmation of 11 members of Trump's Cabinet. The list goes on.
As I see it, the only thing Bill Nelson has done is cater to the special interests who are ripping off the citizens of Florida. I would like to know how many working people and retirees he has ever entertained in his home. (Does he even have a home in Florida? I can find no record of it.) And how many lobbyists and representatives of special interests have entertained him?
Though he seems to have been missing in action on the Hill, one area where Sen. Nelson excels is in fundraising. He has raised over $41 million for his three previous campaigns and has already raised over $13.4 million (as of March) for his current campaign. The question is what exactly those large donors got in return for their generous donations. By far the largest donors to his previous campaigns were lawyers and law firms, otherwise known as "trial lawyers." Has Sen. Nelson ever advocated a cap on class action lawsuits? I don't believe so.
What is clear is that Sen. Nelson's net worth has increased dramatically during his time in "public service." Despite his modest congressional salaries and the high cost of living in Washington, according to opensecrets.org, Nelson's net worth as of 2016 was $3.67 million.
By contrast, Rick Scott's wealth was earned in the private sector. Scott has been a fearless and effective leader, not a stooge of special interests. He has contributed to Florida's record of economic growth and clean government. When crises arise, as with the Pulse nightclub shooting and Hurricane Irma, Scott was on the spot, providing leadership and relief. Gov. Scott is a man of action, in large part because he is not a career politician.
For Scott, government service is just that: a service that he has performed with no thought of personal reward. Rick Scott is certainly one of the most effective governors in Florida history. He has maintained a balanced state budget and a sound credit rating, steered Florida's emergency response through several powerful hurricanes, improved educational standards, lowered crime rates, and maintained Florida as a no-income tax state. Above all, he has restrained the growth of government. He also leaves office without a hint of scandal or impropriety. Were it not for the two-term limit, Gov. Scott would easily be re-elected to a third term as governor.
I'm sure that Bill Nelson, as a private citizen, is a well meaning and thoroughly decent individual. He may even be sincere in what he says about avoiding "extreme" positions, although his partisan voting record contradicts this statement. He is certainly a likeable person – one I would enjoy meeting should he ever visit my conservative district. (For some reason, he seems to avoid us.) But it is time for him to return to being a private citizen. The era of career politicians is over.
Fortunately, RealClearPolitics polling puts Gov. Scott ahead of Bill Nelson, if ever so slightly. Unlike Mr. Nowhere Man, Scott has a strong presence in the state, a highly favorable approval rating, and strong support from the state's millions of retirees. I'm sure that Democrats, with the help of funding from special interests, will attack Gov. Scott fiercely, but at the moment, Scott holds a lead over his zombie opponent.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).