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Bill Nelson (politician)

For other people named Bill Nelson, see Bill Nelson (disambiguation).
Bill Nelson
United States Senator
from Florida
Assumed office
January 3, 2001
Serving with Marco Rubio
Preceded by Connie Mack III
Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging
Assumed office
January 3, 2013
Preceded by Herb Kohl
Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida
In office
January 3, 1995 – January 3, 2001
Governor Lawton Chiles (1995-1998)
Buddy MacKay (1998-1999)
Jeb Bush (1999-2000)
Succeeded by Tom Gallagher
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 11th district
In office
January 3, 1983 – January 3, 1991
Preceded by Daniel A. Mica
Succeeded by Jim Bacchus
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 9th district
In office
January 3, 1979 – January 3, 1983
Preceded by Louis Frey
Succeeded by Michael Bilirakis
Member of the
Florida House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born Clarence William Nelson
(1942-09-29) September 29, 1942 (age 71)
Miami, Florida
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Grace Cavert (m.1972-present)
Children Bill Nelson, Jr.
Nan Ellen Nelson
Residence Orlando, Florida
Alma mater University of Florida
Yale University (B.A.)
University of Virginia School of Law (J.D.)
Religion Episcopalian[1]
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1965-1968, 1970-1971 (Reserve)
1968-1970 (Active Duty)
Rank Captain

Clarence William "Bill" Nelson (born September 29, 1942) is an American politician and member of the Democratic Party who serves as the senior United States Senator from Florida, in office since 2001. Nelson began his career in the Florida House of Representatives, where he served from 1973 to 1979. He then served in the United States House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991 and in January 1986, Nelson became the second sitting member of the United States Congress to fly in space. He flew as a Payload Specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia.

He retired from Congress in 1990 to unsuccessfully run for Governor of Florida. He then served as Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida from 1995 to 2001. In 2000, Nelson ran for and was elected to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Senator Connie Mack III. He was re-elected in 2006 with 60% of the vote[2] and in 2012 with 55% of the vote. In the Senate, he is generally considered a social moderate and an economic liberal.

Personal life

Nelson was born in Miami, the only child of Nannie Merle (née Nelson) and Clarence William Nelson.[3][4] His ancestry includes Scottish, Irish, English, and Danish.[5][6] He spent his youth in Melbourne, Florida, where he attended Melbourne High School.[7] He was baptized as a Baptist, and grew up attending Baptist and Episcopal churches. He served as President of Kiwanis-sponsored Key Club International in 1959-60.[8] In 2005, he joined the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.[9]

Nelson attended the University of Florida, where he was a member of Florida Blue Key, and the Beta Theta Pi social fraternity, before transferring to Yale University.[10] He subsequently received a law degree from the University of Virginia.[11] In 1965, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve; he served on active duty from 1968 to 1970, attaining the rank of captain, and he remained in the Army until 1971. Nelson was admitted to the Florida bar in 1968, and began practicing law in Melbourne in 1970. In 1971, he worked as legislative assistant to Governor Reubin Askew.[11]

In 1972, Nelson married Grace Cavert. The couple has two adult children: Bill Nelson, Jr., and Nan Ellen Nelson.[7][12]


Clarence William "Bill" Nelson
NASA Payload Specialist
Nationality American
Born September 29, 1942
Miami, Florida
Current occupation U.S. Senator
Previous occupation Representative, U.S. House
Time in space 6d 02h 03m
Missions STS-61-C
Mission insignia

In 1986, Nelson became the second sitting member of Congress (and the first member of the House) to travel into space. He went through NASA training with Senator Jake Garn of Utah. He was a Payload Specialist on Space Shuttle Columbia's STS-61-C mission from January 12 to 18, 1986. Columbia landed at Edwards AFB at 5:59 a.m. PST, on January 18. Mission elapsed time was 6 days, 2 hours, 3 minutes, 51 seconds. It was the last successful Space Shuttle flight before the Challenger accident, as the disaster occurred only 10 days after Columbia's return.

Early political career

Florida legislature

In 1972, Nelson was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. He won re-election in 1974 and 1976.[13]

U.S. House of Representatives

Nelson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978. He served in the U.S. House from 1979 to 1991.

1990 gubernatorial campaign

In 1990, Nelson ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Florida. He lost to former U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles, who went on to win the general election. During the primary campaign, Nelson tried to make an issue out of Chiles' health and age, a strategy that backfired on him in a state with a large population of retirees and senior citizens.

Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshall

In 1994 Nelson announced his intention to seek the office of Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida. He won the election with 52% of the vote over State Rep. Tim Ireland's 48%. In 1998, he again defeated Ireland for his reelection to the office. butts In 2000, Nelson announced that he would be running for the United States Senate seat held by retiring Republican Connie Mack III. effective January 3, 2001.[14] Florida's "resign-to-run" law requires an incumbent office holder seeking another elective office to submit an irrevocable resignation from the office they currently hold unless that tenure would end anyway before they would assume the new position if elected. The candidate may designate the effective date of the resignation to be in the future, but it must be no later than the date that they would assume the new office. This compelled Nelson to submit his resignation as Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshall early in 2000 when he began to campaign for the U.S. Senate seat. He chose January 3, 2001 as the effective date of his resignation, as that was the date new Senators would be sworn in.[15]

United States Senate


2000 election campaign

In 2000, Nelson ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Senator Connie Mack. He won the election, defeating U.S. Representative Bill McCollum, who ran as the Republican candidate.

2006 re-election campaign

Following the 2004 election, in which Republican George W. Bush was re-elected and the Republican party increased its majority in both the House and the Senate, Nelson was seen as vulnerable. He was a Democrat in a state that Bush had won, though by a margin of only five percentage points.[16]

Evangelical Christian activist James Dobson declared that such Democrats, including Nelson, would be "in the 'bull's-eye'" if they supported efforts to block Bush's judicial nominees;[17] and Nelson's refusal to support efforts in Congress to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case was seen as "a great political issue" for a Republican opponent to use in mobilizing Christian conservatives against him.[18]

Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State and two-term U.S. representative, defeated three other candidates in the September 5 Republican primary. Harris's role in the 2000 presidential election made her a polarizing figure. Many Florida Republicans were eager to reward her for her perceived party loyalty in the Bush-Gore election; many Florida Democrats were eager to vote against her for the same reason.[19] In May, when the party found itself unable to recruit a candidate who could defeat Harris in the primary, many Republican activists admitted that the race was already lost.[20]

Nelson focused on safe issues, portraying himself as a bipartisan centrist problem-solver.[19] He obtained the endorsement of all 22 of Florida's daily newspapers.[21] Harris failed to secure the endorsement of Jeb Bush, who publicly stated that she could not win; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had supported her in her House campaigns, did not endorse her in this race.[22]

As the election approached, polls showed Harris trailing Nelson by 26 to 35 points.[23] Nelson transferred about $16.5 million in campaign funds to other Democratic candidates,[24] and won the election with 60.4% of the vote to Harris's 38.2%.[25]

2012 re-election campaign

Biden has called Nelson crucial to President Obama's chances for winning Florida in 2012. In March 2011, Vice President Joe Biden was reported as having said that if Nelson lost in 2012, “it means President Obama and the Democratic presidential ticket won't win the key battleground state, either....'He's a truly, truly decent guy who has the absolute respect of his colleagues, and I've heard that from both sides of the aisle,' Biden said of his former Senate colleague.”[26] Congressman Connie Mack IV, the son of Nelson's direct predecessor in the Senate, won the Republican nomination. Nelson eventually defeated Mack with 55.2% of the vote to Mack's 42.2%.[27]

Committee assignments

Senator Nelson serves on the following committees in the 113th Congress.

Political positions

According to ratings by the National Journal, Nelson's votes have been liberal on economic matters, moderate on social issues, and liberal but close to the center on foreign policy.[28]

Central America Free Trade Agreement

In 2005, Nelson was one of ten Democrats who voted in favor of the Dominican Republic – Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on its 55-45 passage in the Senate.[29]

Estate tax

On several occasions, Nelson has voted to reduce or eliminate the estate tax,[30] notably in June 2006, when he was one of four Democrats voting for a failed (57-41) cloture motion on a bill to eliminate the tax.[31]

Withholding funding from the CIA

In 2007, Nelson was the lone Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee to vote against an amendment to withhold funds for CIA use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects. His vote, combined with those of all Republican members of the committee, killed the measure.[32]

Health care

In March 2010, Nelson voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which passed and were signed into law by President Obama.

Abortion rights and stem cell research

Nelson is pro-choice. He voted against denying federal funding to Planned Parenthood and against another bill that would have cut funding for contraception and cancer screenings. He has received a 100% rating from NARAL. Nelson also co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007.[33]

Space exploration

Nelson is seen as a major supporter of the space program. In 2010 he proposed creating as many as “five business enterprise zones as magnets for commercial space ventures.” He said that “the move is expected to attract thousands of jobs to Florida’s 'Space Coast' area around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.”[34]

In March 2010 Nelson complained that Obama had made a mistake in canceling NASA's Constellation program.[35] On July 7, 2011, it was reported that Nelson said Congress “starved” the space program of funding for several years, but suggested that the situation was turning around and called on the Obama Administration to push for NASA funding.[36]

Don't Ask Don't Tell

On December 18, 2010, Nelson voted in favor of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010,[37][38] which established a legal process for ending the policy that prevented gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the United States Armed Forces.

Same-sex marriage

On April 4, 2013, Nelson’s announced he no longer opposes same-sex marriage. He wrote, "The civil rights and responsibilities for one must pertain to all. Thus, to discriminate against one class and not another is wrong for me. Simply put, if The Lord made homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, why should I discriminate against their civil marriage? I shouldn't, and I won't."[39]

Government spending

Bill Nelson voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, often referred to as economic stimulus, proposed by President Obama.[40] In August 2011, Nelson voted for a bill to increase the debt ceiling by $400 billion. Nelson said that while the bill was not perfect, "this kind of gridlock doesn't do anything." Nelson voted against Paul Ryan's budget.[33]


Nelson voted against a Republican plan to extend the Bush tax cuts to all taxpayers. Instead, Nelson supported extending the tax cuts for those with incomes below $250,000.[33] Nelson voted for the Buffett Rule in April 2012. Speaking of his support for the Buffett Rule, Nelson said he voted to raise the minimum tax rate on incomes over $1 million per year to 30% in order to reduce the budget deficit and to make the tax code more fair. Nelson said, "In short, tax fairness for deficit reduction just makes common sense."[41]

Foreign aid

Bill Nelson voted against

Gun Control

Bill Nelson is an advocate for new gun control laws including an Assault Weapons Ban and imposing a ban on magazines over ten rounds.[43]

Short sales and credit scores of consumers

In May 2013 the Senator requested the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau investigate why consumers who go through a real estate short sale have their credit score lowered to the same degree as those who go through Foreclosure. The Senator suggested a penalty if the problem is not rectified within ninety days.[44]



On February 17, 2009, David D. Kirkpatrick wrote that Nelson was one of three lawmakers who “were returning campaign contributions from donors listed as employees of the PMA Group, a Washington lobbying firm whose founder is under investigation for purportedly funneling money through bogus donors.”[45]

During his 2006 Senate campaign, according to the Open Congress website, Nelson “was accused of taking $80,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Riscorp, Inc....The Riscorp scandal involved dozens of Florida state legislators and was among the largest scandals in recent Florida history.”[46]

Council on American-Islamic Relations

In November 2011, Ahmed Bedier, an activist linked to CAIR and the Muslim Brotherhood, donated money to Nelson and co-hosted a fundraiser for him. Nelson's representatives later claimed that he “did not know about Bedier's relationship with CAIR” and that Bedier had exaggerated his closeness to the senator.[47] In November 2011 Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald wrote that the scandal over Bedier threatened the Jewish vote for Nelson, given that Bedier had called Israel a “terrorist state.” Caputo noted that while “Nelson has gone to great lengths to fashion himself as pro-Israel,” that wasn't enough for some conservative groups.[48]

Syria visit

In December 2006, Bill Nelson made a trip to Syria to visit President Bashar Assad in Damascus.[49] At the time, the Bush Administration had a no contact policy with Syrian officials because “of its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, which the U.S. deems terrorist organizations.”[50] The White House press secretary commented on the trip saying, "We don't think that members of Congress ought to be going there”.[50] The State Department also disapproved of the trip, but provided logistical support to Nelson.[51]

Electoral history

Florida State House of Representatives election 1972[52]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson 26,771 68.9
Republican David Vozzola 12,078 31.1
Florida 9th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1978
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson 89,543 61.5
Republican Edward J. Gurney 56,074 38.5
Florida 9th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1980
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 139,468 70.4
Republican Stan Dowiat 58,734 29.6
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1982
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 101,746 70.6
Republican Joel Robinson 42,422 29.4
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1984
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 145,764 60.5
Republican Rob Quartel 95,115 39.5
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1986
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 149,109 72.7
Republican Scott Ellis 55,952 27.3
Florida 11th District U.S. House of Representatives election 1988
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 168,390 60.8
Republican Bill Tolley 108,373 39.2
Florida Governor, Democratic primary election 1990
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Lawton Chiles 745,325 69.5
Democratic Bill Nelson 327,731 30.5
Florida State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal election 1994
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson 2,070,604 51.7
Republican Tim Ireland 1,933,570 48.3
Florida State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal election 1998
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 2,195,283 56.5 +4.8
Republican Tim Ireland 1,687,712 43.5 -4.8
Florida U.S. Senate election 2000
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson 2,987,644 52.1
Republican Bill McCollum 2,703,608 47.2
Florida U.S. Senate election 2006
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 2,890,548 60.3 +9.8
Republican Katherine Harris 1,826,127 38.1
Florida U.S. Senate election 2012
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Democratic Bill Nelson (Incumbent) 4,523,451 55.23 -5.07
Republican Connie Mack IV 3,458,267 42.23 +4.13


External links

Biography portal
  • Senator Bill Nelson official U.S. Senate site
  • Bill Nelson for Senate
  • Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Ballotpedia
  • NNDB
  • Project Vote Smart
  • GovTrack
  • OpenCongress
  • Roll Call
  • Federal Election Commission
  • The Washington Post
  • On the Issues
  • The Library of Congress
  • The Washington Post
  • C-SPAN programs
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Bloomberg News
  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • NASA astronaut biography
Preceded by
Louis Frey (R)
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 9th congressional district

January 3, 1979 – January 3, 1983
Succeeded by
Michael Bilirakis (R)
Preceded by
Daniel A. Mica (D)
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 11th congressional district

January 3, 1983 – January 3, 1991
Succeeded by
Jim Bacchus (D)
Preceded by
Connie Mack III (R)
United States Senator (Class 1) from Florida
January 3, 2001-
Served alongside: Bob Graham, Mel Martinez, George LeMieux, Marco Rubio
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by
Sam Brownback
Chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics, and Related Sciences
January 4, 2007–present
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by
Hugh Rodham
Democratic Party nominee for United States Senator from Florida
(Class 1)

2000, 2006, 2012
Succeeded by
Current nominee
United States order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Mike Crapo
United States Senators by seniority
Succeeded by
Tom Carper


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