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Bill Nelson

Assumed office 
January 3, 2001
Serving with George LeMieux
Preceded by Connie Mack III

In office
Governor Lawton Chiles 1995-1998
Buddy MacKay 1998-1999
Jeb Bush 1999-2000
Preceded by Tom Gallagher
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

In office

Born September 29, 1942 (1942-09-29) (age 67)
Miami, Florida
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Grace Cavert Nelson
Children Bill Nelson, Jr.
Nan Ellen Nelson
Residence Orlando, Florida
Alma mater Yale University,
University of Virginia,
University of Florida
Religion Episcopalianism
Clarence William "Bill" Nelson
Bill Nelson, official NASA photo.jpg
NASA Payload Specialist
Born September 29, 1942
Miami, Florida
Current occupation U.S. Senator
Previous occupation Representative, U.S. House
Time in space 6d 02h 03m
Selection 1985
Missions STS-61-C
Mission insignia STS-61-c-patch.png
For other people named Bill Nelson, see Bill Nelson (disambiguation).

Clarence William "Bill" Nelson (born September 29, 1942) is the senior U.S. Senator from Florida. Nelson is a member of the Democratic Party. In 1986, he became the second sitting member of the United States Congress to fly in space, as a Payload Specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia.


Personal life

Early life and career

Nelson was born in Miami, the only child of Nannie Merle Nelson and Clarence Nelson.[1] He spent his formative years in Melbourne, Florida, where he attended Melbourne High School.[2] In his youth, he served as an international president of Key Club International.[1] He attended the University of Florida for several years, then transferred to Yale University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1965. In 1968, he received his law degree from the University of Virginia.[3]

In college, Nelson was enrolled in ROTC. In 1965, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve; he served on active duty from 1968 to 1970, attaining the rank of captain.[3] He remained in the Army until 1971.[2]

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.[4]


In 1972, Nelson married Grace Cavert. The couple has two adult children: Bill Nelson, Jr., and Nan Ellen Nelson.[2] The Nelsons live in the Baldwin Park neighborhood of Orlando.[5]


Nelson's official Senate biography does not list his religion.[2] According to Project Vote Smart, he is a Presbyterian.[6], which describes him as a "devout Christian", calls him an Episcopalian.[3] Author Jeff Sharlet asserts that Nelson is a member of a secretive Christian group known as the Family.[7]

Florida legislature

In 1972, Nelson was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. He won re-election in 1974 and 1976.[4]

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.

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 12–18. Ten days after his return, on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off.


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 and Insurance Commissioner

In 1994 Nelson announced his intention to seek the office of Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner 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.

In 2000, Nelson resigned his post as Commissioner following his election to the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Senate


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.

Political actions and positions

In his official Senate biography, Nelson calls himself "the leading congressional expert on NASA". He lists legislative priorities and accomplishments that include anti-identity-theft and anti-spam measures; opposition to reducing the U.S. Navy's aircraft-carrier fleet; opposition to oil drilling off the Florida coast; supporting a Medicare prescription-drug benefit that allows the government to negotiate lower prices from drug suppliers; and obtaining federal relief for victims of the 2004 hurricane season.[2]

Nelson's votes have tended to be more liberal than conservative. He has received high ratings from left-of-center groups such as Americans for Democratic Action, and low ones from right-of-center groups such as the Eagle Forum and the Club for Growth. According to ratings by the National Journal, Nelson's votes have been strongly liberal on social and economic matters; liberal but close to the center on foreign policy.[8]

In the 110th Congress, Nelson cast 91.8% of his votes in agreement with the majority of the Democratic Party. For comparison, the average Democratic senator voted with the party 87.5% of the time; the high number among Democrats was 97.5%, and the low was 81.2%. Among Republican senators, the frequency of voting with the party majority ranged from 64.5% to 93.0%, with an average of 77.8%.[9]

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;[10] Nelson's vote was cast despite opposition by the sugar lobby.[11]

On several occasions, Nelson has voted against his party to reduce or eliminate the estate tax,[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

Nelson is a member of the Congressional Cuba Democracy Caucus, which generally opposes easing sanctions on Cuba.[15]

2006 re-election campaign

Sen. Nelson works with government storm trackers during a hurricane-hunter flight into the center of Hurricane Charley in August 2004

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] Florida governor Jeb Bush, precluded by term limits from seeking re-election in 2006, was suggested as an opponent who might secure Nelson's seat for the Republicans. [16]

Bush chose not to run for the seat. Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State and two-term U.S. representative, defeated three other candidates in the September 5 Republican primary. Nelson was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

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] Harris's campaign was beset by difficulties: poor fundraising, a series of gaffes, and a high turnover of staff, including the loss of three campaign managers and of chief advisor Ed Rollins.[20] In February, it was learned that Harris had received $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions from defense contractor Mitchell J. Wade.[21]

In April, a National Review editorial urged Harris to withdraw, arguing that she would unquestionably win the primary and lose the general election.[22] 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.[23]

Harris's campaign focused heavily on evangelical Christianity.[24] In an August interview with Florida Baptist Witness, she declared: "[I]f you're not electing Christians then in essence you are going to legislate sin"[25] Nelson, meanwhile, 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.[26] 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 congressional campaigns, did not endorse her in this race.[27]

As the election approached, polls showed Harris trailing Nelson by 26 to 35 points.[20] Nelson transferred about $16.5 million in campaign funds to other Democratic candidates,[28] and won the election with 60.4% of the vote to Harris's 38.2%.[29]

Committee assignments

Trip to Damascus

On December 13, 2006, Nelson went to Damascus and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "He (Assad) stated that we in fact, have an interest, common interest, to stabilize Iraq. I think it is a crack in the door, and it is for discussions to continue," Nelson said in a conference call from Amman, Jordan after meeting Assad in Damascus.[citation needed] The White House said that members of Congress should not be going to Syria. "I think it is a real stretch to think that the Syrians don't know where we stand or what we think. We have made it clear and we will continue to make it clear," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.[citation needed] In the days following Nelson's meeting with Assad, Senator Arlen Specter flew to Syria and met with Assad. Specter wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that emphasized the importance of such visits and reaffirmed Nelson's position that it was part of his constitutional duty.[30]

Florida primary controversy

In 2007, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a measure that changed Florida's primary date to January 29, several weeks earlier than the previous date. The measure passed the Florida House of Representatives by a vote of 118-0, and passed the State Senate by a vote of 37-2.[31] This change was in violation of the Democratic National Committee's rules regarding state primary dates, which caused the DNC Chairman Howard Dean to threaten to strip the state of its delegates to the Democratic National Convention if they did not schedule the primary for a date that fell within the guidelines of the DNC. Senator Nelson played an active role in attempting to restore the activity of the delegates, going so far as to threaten a lawsuit against the DNC if an appropriate settlement was not reached.[32] On May 31, 2008 the DNC bylaws committee decided to seat all of the Florida delegates with each being apportioned one-half vote.[33]

Electoral history

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 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 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 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 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 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


  1. ^ a b "Senator Bill Nelson". Florida 4-H Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2009-12-15.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Biography". U.S. Senator Bill Nelson - Florida (official U.S. Senate website). Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  3. ^ a b c "Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)". Retrieved 2009-12-15.
  4. ^ a b "Bill Nelson". Washington Post:U.S. Congress Votes Database. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  5. ^ "Florida's senior senator praises Martinez, stays quiet about possible candidates in 2010". U.S. Senator Bill Nelson - Florida (official U.S. Senate website). Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  6. ^ "Senator Bill Nelson, Sr. (FL)". Project Vote Smart. Retrieved 2009-12-15.
  7. ^ Sharlet, Jeff (March 2003). "Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  8. ^ "Interest Group Ratings: Senator Bill Nelson, Sr. (FL)". Project Vote Smart. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  9. ^ "Senate voting with party scores". Washington Post:U.S. Congress Votes Database. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  10. ^ Nichols, John. "Democrats for CAFTA". The Beat (blog at the Nation). 2005-07-05. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  11. ^ "Part 1 How Blunt Whipped CAFTA". American Crystal Sugar Company News Archive. 2005-09-06. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  12. ^ "Bill Nelson - Votes Against Party". Washington Post:U.S. Congress Votes Database. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  13. ^ Andrews, Edmund L. "G.O.P. Fails in Attempt to Repeal Estate Tax". New York Times. 2006-06-09. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  14. ^ Shane, Scott. "Senate Panel Questions C.I.A. Detentions". New York Times. 2007-06-01. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  15. ^ Bachelet, Pablo. "Battle over Cuba policy heats up". Miami Herald, 2007-03-05; article quoted in Latin American Studies. Retrieved 2009-12-16.
  16. ^ a b "For Democrats in red states, 2006 daunting". Washington Times. 2004-11-29. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  17. ^ Kirkpatrick, David D. "Evangelical Leader Threatens to Use His Political Muscle Against Some Democrats". New York Times. 2005-01-01. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  18. ^ Allen, Mike, and Manuel Roig-Franzia. "Congress Steps In on Schiavo Case". Washington Post. 2005-03-20. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  19. ^ a b Gibson, William E."Senate Race Centers on Images". Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. 2006-10-20. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  20. ^ a b Copeland, Libby. "Campaign Gone South". Washington Post. 1006-10-31. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  21. ^ Babcock, Charles R. "Contractor Pleads Guilty to Corruption". Washington Post. 2006-02-25. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  22. ^ "A Time to be Wise". National Review editorial. 2006-04-10. Retrieved 2009-12-22.]
  23. ^ Kumar, Anita. "GOP can't elude Harris vs. Nelson".St. Petersburg Times. 2006-05-11. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  24. ^ Smith, Adam C. and Anita Kumar. "Harris puts her faith in religion". St. Petersburg Times. 2006-03-25. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  25. ^ "Katherine Harris". Florida Baptist Witness. 2006-08-22. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  26. ^ Clark, Lesley. "Nelson goes 22-0". Naked Politics (Miami Herald blog). 2006-10-30. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  27. ^ Kormanik, Beth. "Harris, Nelson tout testimonials". Florida Times-Union. 2006-10-31. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  28. ^ Gibson, William E. "Nelson Rolls To Second Term". Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. 2006-11-08. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  29. ^ Miller, Lorraine C. "Statistics of the Congressional Election of November 7, 2006". U.S. House of Representatives website. 2007-09-21. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  30. ^ Specter, Arlen. "Why Congress Can and Must Assert Itself in Foreign Policy". Philadelphia Inquirer. 2007-01-05. Reproduced on Specter's U.S. Senate website. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
  31. ^ CS/HB 537 - Elections
  32. ^
  33. ^ DNC’s Statement on the Florida and Michigan Delegations

External links

United States House of Representatives
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)
United States Senate
Preceded by
Connie Mack III (R)
United States Senator (Class 1) from Florida
January 3, 2001-
Served alongside: Bob Graham, Mel Martinez, George LeMieux
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
Succeeded by
To be determined
United States order of precedence
Preceded by
Evan Bayh
United States Senators by seniority
Succeeded by
Thomas R. Carper

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