By Zayida Baker

Though Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has represented Floridians since 2001, freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., seems to be cultivating a better relationship with them.

According to his official biography, “Florida’s own Bill Nelson” is known as “a staunch advocate for all Floridians and a moderate voice in the increasingly partisan world of national politics.” However, at least three tea party leaders in central Florida swing districts disagree. To them, Nelson is unfailingly tied to Obama and greets them with a closed ear.

Although these three speak as both Floridians and grassroots leaders, they are usually ignored. None have been able to meet with Nelson, even though two of them have rallied at his office. Their e-mails get canned replies.

Sharon Calvert, head of the Tampa Tea Party, says that her group’s first meeting, in December 2009, was a demonstration in front of Nelson’s office. She also recalls being shut out of a meeting Nelson was having with the Sierra Club in the lead-up to the healthcare bill. “He tends to meet with environmentalists,” she explains. Once, as her group waited for him to finish a luncheon hosted by the area’s Chamber of Commerce, he snuck out the back exit.

Although a member of Nelson’s staff met with her once about healthcare, Calvert laments that “We never, ever could get a meeting with the senator. We never could get him to do a face-to-face town hall.”

Ron McCoy, founder of the West Orlando Tea Party, tells a similar tale. He gets “nothing from Nelson,” despite even staging a rally outside of his office against the federally funded high-speed rail project planned for Florida. He e-mailed Nelson about spending and received a delayed, form response.

Peter Lee, director of Orlando’s East Side Tea Party, does not feel Nelson’s presence in the city. He has not pursued Nelson as much but adds, “I actually don’t know of any town halls that Nelson has published.” He continues, “Even [Rep.] John Mica [R-Fla.], who I disagree with most of the time vehemently–I’ve at least seen him in a semi-public setting and actually participated in a tele-town hall with him.”

McCoy believes that this reflects a difference between parties as well: even though some on the left tried to disrupt their town halls this summer after the debt debate, “Republicans had them anyway, and people showed up and had their say.”

To these leaders, Nelson is not just unresponsive; he is unaccountable, even evasive.

Calvert makes the point: “If you call his office, and [the Senate is] going to be voting that day on something, you cannot get his position. They do not want to tell you.” They instead say something to the effect that “’He has not made a comment on that yet.’”

“He should stand on his vote,” she emphasizes.

All three leaders have a completely different, and better, relationship with Marco Rubio and his office. Their comparisons of Rubio’s and Nelson’s public relations find Nelson wanting.

According to McCoy, “Rubio’s been very hands-on with the tea party as far as listening and being available, and I’ve heard that from other people as well.” While Nelson is “not at all” accessible, he says of Rubio, “If we needed to talk to him, I know that we could.”

Lee also speaks of a good connection with Rubio and says that his e-mails usually get an answer “within 24 hours.” However, he says, “I don’t have that experience with Nelson, nor probably would they welcome that.”

Rubio’s communications director, Alex Burgos, says that his office tracks the thousands of e-mails, letters, and phone calls received from constituents every week to “keep a good tally of” what they think. Rubio hosts town halls, informational sessions, coffee hours, and tele-town halls.

Marco’s Constituent Mailbox” is a weekly video series featuring two or three constituent letters. Those highlighted are often from people who disagree with Rubio on hot topics, which gives him a chance to explain his positions to all those who may see things differently. Rubio also updates the public on his work through Facebook, YouTube, weekly newsletters, Twitter, and a blog on his website.

Burgos says Rubio sets the standard for his office: “customer service” is “as important as the work that goes on in Washington.” They try to be “not only responsive, but courteous in the process.”

Calvert met with one of Rubio’s aides when she visited D.C. to testify at a committee hearing. “We have no problem reaching out to Marco’s . . . aides or to the senator himself, who seems to want our input.”

She and McCoy mention that Rubio headlined their Tax Day Tea Party event this year. Calvert observes, “Sen. Rubio can speak to anybody. . . . Sen. Nelson only goes to friendly audiences.”

McCoy agrees: “The contrast between the two is completely night and day. Maybe that’s just because of their stripes, but . . . I still think Nelson should listen [to us].”

A recent poll showed that Rubio’s approval rating has pulled ahead of Nelson’s, even though Rubio is a relative newcomer. Unlike Rubio, Nelson is up for reelection in 2012.

Lee’s group is among many that are looking toward 2012. “A lot of Nelson’s competition is coming and visiting the tea parties. If Nelson would like to come as well, we’d certainly give him an open forum.”

Nelson’s office ignored multiple requests for comment on this story.

You may wish to contact
Sen. Nelson: (202) 224-5274
Sen. Rubio: (202) 224-3041

Zayida Baker covers Rep. Steve Southerland and Sen. Bill Nelson for Tea Party Patriots’ Government Accountability Project. She can be reached at zayida.baker@tppjournalism.org.