By Zayida Baker

Bill Nelson has battled Big Oil, Wall Street, and insurance companies in Florida’s name for decades, but he does not represent tea party constituents.

Bill Nelson is not new to politics. The 68-year-old Florida native won his first elected post in 1972 to the Florida House of Representatives. He enacted America’s first state law against computer fraud. He left for Congress in 1979 to represent Orlando and the Space Coast. In 1986, while still in the House, he orbited the Earth for six days aboard the space shuttle Columbia. The trip and his chairmanship of the Space Subcommittee began his career as “the leading congressional expert on NASA.” He also banned drilling on Florida’s shores.

Nelson departed Congress in 1991 as part of a failed bid for governor. Four years later he was elected state treasurer, insurance commissioner and fire marshal. He remained until 2000, when he defeated Republican Bill McCollum to become senator. He was reelected in 2006 and seeks a third term in 2012.

2012 promises to be a tougher match than 2006; then Nelson trounced Katherine Harris, who was controversial for her role as Florida’s secretary of state in the 2000 presidential election. Now Nelson also labors in the shadow of a vulnerable Democrat president, and any lobs at Obama may hit him too.

The senator repeatedly brands himself as a warrior against big corporations—ones that would drill off Florida’s coast or charge too much for oil; ones that would gouge the public—for example, minorities, the elderly, victims of natural disasters, or Holocaust survivors and their families—for insurance premiums or pharmaceuticals; and ones that would violate consumers’ privacy by appropriating their medical information or being careless with their credit reports.

As insurance commissioner, Nelson was not shy about interfering with the free market. He boasts that he “[fought] to keep insurance rates affordable for homeowners” and “ordered auto insurers to decrease rates for good drivers.” He still watches for insurance companies that drop customers and refuse claims.

He seeks to subdue banks through regulation, reasoning after the economic crash of 2008 that the government must align their interests with that of the public. After complaining last year that higher bank fees proposed by the president were not high enough to obliterate Wall Street bonuses, he advanced his own bill on executive compensation for “systemically significant” financial institutions. It stalled in committee.

Big Oil receives similar attention. In June 2008 Nelson backed a failed Senate bill to tax oil companies’ “excess profits.” He brags of his 2006 filibuster against an attempt to open Florida to drilling, after which he negotiated protections for the Gulf Coast until 2022. Last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf reinforced his anti-drilling stance. He maintains that the amount of oil at stake would not lower gas prices.

Although public support for drilling seems to have resurged, Pace Allen, of Daytona Beach’s Tax Tea Party, says that Nelson has “picked his position, and he’s not going to change.”

Others in the tea party also see Nelson as unresponsive. Everett Wilkinson, of Florida Tea Party Patriots, complained that he has never met Nelson though he “tried everything under the sun to meet [Nelson]—here, D.C., anywhere in the state; I know other people who have done the same thing. He’s not willing to meet with us.”

Robert Sullivan, of Walton County Tea Party Patriots, called Nelson “a write-off” for the conservative Panhandle region. “There’s no point in trying to deal with Sen. Nelson when it comes to a point of view other than what he has.”

Indeed, Nelson did not answer questions submitted by Tea Party Patriots.

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

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.