Clarence William Nelson II (born September 29, 1942) is an American politician of the Democratic Party serving as the senior United States Senator from Florida, in office since 2001. Nelson began his career in the Florida House of Representatives, serving from 1972 to 1978. He then served in the United States House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991. 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 run for Governor of Florida but was unsuccessful. He was appointed as Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida, serving 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 and in 2012 with 55% of the vote. In the Senate, he is generally considered a moderate Democrat. As of 2017 he holds a 52% approval rating with only 23% of his constituents saying they disapprove of his job as Senator. As of 2018, he is the only Democratic statewide elected official in Florida.
|United States Senator
January 3, 2001
Serving with Marco Rubio
|Preceded by||Connie Mack III|
|Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee|
January 3, 2015
|Preceded by||John Thune|
|Chair of the Senate Aging Committee|
January 3, 2013 – January 3, 2015
|Preceded by||Herb Kohl|
|Succeeded by||Susan Collins|
|Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida|
January 3, 1995 – January 3, 2001
|Preceded by||Tom Gallagher|
|Succeeded by||Tom Gallagher|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 11th district
January 3, 1979 – January 3, 1991
|Preceded by||Louis Frey Jr.|
|Succeeded by||Jim Bacchus|
|Member of the Florida House of Representatives
from the 47th district
November 7, 1972 – November 7, 1978
|Preceded by||Mary R. Grizzle|
|Succeeded by||Tim Deratany|
|Born||Clarence William Nelson II
September 29, 1942
Miami, Florida, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Grace Cavert (m. 1972)|
|Education||University of Florida
Yale University (BA)
University of Virginia (JD)
|Service/branch||United States Army|
|Years of service||1965–1968, 1970–1971 (Reserve)
|NASA Payload Specialist|
Time in space
|6d 02h 03m|
Nelson was born September 29, 1942, in Miami, Florida, the only child of Nannie Merle (née Nelson) and Clarence William Nelson. His ancestry includes Scottish, Irish, English, and Danish. His father died of a heart attack when Nelson was 14 and his mother of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) when he was 24.
He attended Baptist and Episcopal churches but later was baptized through immersion in a Baptist church. He served as International President of Kiwanis-sponsored Key Club International in 1959–60. In 2005, he joined the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.
Nelson attended the University of Florida, where he was a member of Florida Blue Key, and the Beta Theta Pi social fraternity. He transferred to Yale University, where he was a member of the Book and Snake secret society. He received a law degree from the University of Virginia.
In 1965, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. 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.
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, 45 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. Nelson wrote a book about his spaceflight experience in 1988, Mission: An American Congressman's Voyage to Space
In 1972, Nelson was elected to the Florida House of Representatives from the 47th District, representing much of Brevard County and portions of Orange and Seminole Counties. He won reelection in 1974 and 1976.
Nelson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 in the open 9th District after the five-term Republican incumbent, Louis Frey Jr., ran for governor rather than reelection. Nelson was reelected to that district, which encompassed all of Brevard and part of Orange County, in 1980. He was redistricted to the 11th District, encompassing all of Brevard and parts of Orange, Indian River, and Osceola Counties, and continued to serve in the U.S. House until 1991.
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.
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.
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. 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.
In 2000, Nelson ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Senator Connie Mack III. He won the election, defeating U.S. Representative Bill McCollum, who ran as the Republican candidate.
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.
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; 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.
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. 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.
Nelson focused on safe issues, portraying himself as a bipartisan centrist problem-solver. He obtained the endorsement of all 22 of Florida's daily newspapers. 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.
As the election approached, polls showed Harris trailing Nelson by 26 to 35 points. Nelson transferred about $16.5 million in campaign funds to other Democratic candidates, and won the election with 60.4% of the vote to Harris's 38.2%.
Vice President Joe Biden called Nelson crucial to President Obama's chances for winning Florida in 2012. In March 2011, 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." 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%.
In the 113th session of Congress (ended January 3, 2015), Senator Nelson served on the following committees:
Nelson currently serves on the following committees for the 114th session of Congress:
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. According to CrowdPac, which gives scores based on donations they receive and give, Senator Nelson received a score of 3.5L with 10L being the most liberal and 10C being the most conservative.
Nelson scores a 28.4 lifetime rating on the American Conservative Union's scale of 0 to 100, but a 0 out of 100 in their 2015 ratings. He also scores a 9 out of 100 on the 2016 FreedomWorks' 2016 ratings. He scores a 7 out of 100 on the Club for Growth 2015 scorecard and an 11 out of 100 on their lifetime ratings. He scores a 90% from the Americans for Democratic Action in 2015, the most recent year they have made ratings public.
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.
On several occasions, Nelson has voted to reduce or eliminate the estate tax, 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.
In 2007, Nelson was the only Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee to vote against an amendment to withhold funds for CIA use of enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects. His vote, combined with those of all Republican members of the committee, killed the measure.
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.
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."
In March 2010 Nelson complained that Obama had made a mistake in canceling NASA's Constellation program. 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.
On December 18, 2010, Nelson voted in favor of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, which established a legal process for ending the policy that prevented gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the United States Armed Forces.
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."
Bill Nelson voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, often referred to as economic stimulus, proposed by President Obama. 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.
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. 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."
Bill Nelson voted against Senate Bill 3576, which called for a prohibition of US aid to the governments of Egypt and Libya "contingent upon the release to US authorities the aggressors who attacked our embassy and consulate in Egypt and Libya." The bill also would have limited aid to Pakistan until the release of Dr. Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped the CIA trace Osama bin Laden and is currently imprisoned by the Pakistani government.
In 2012, the National Rifle Association gave Nelson a "F" rating for his support of gun control. Nelson is an advocate for new gun control laws including an Assault Weapons Ban and imposing a ban on magazines over ten rounds. In 2013, he supported a proposal that would require individuals buying guns at gun shows to have background checks. He also supported the banning of assault rifles and limiting gun magazines to 10 rounds.
In response to the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, Nelson expressed remorse that the Democrat's Feinstein Amendment, which made the sale of guns to individuals on the [terrorist watch list]] illegal, and a Republican proposal to update background checks and to create an alert for law enforcement when an individual on the terrorist watch list, failed to pass the Senate. He stated "What am I going to tell the community of Orlando that is trying to come together in the healing? Sadly, what I am going to have to tell them is that the NRA won again.” Both he and Marco Rubio supported the bills.
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.
Nelson voted in favor of the Biggert–Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which required the National Flood Insurance Program to raise insurance rates for some properties at high risk of flooding. In 2014, following an outcry by Florida property owners facing steep flood insurance rate hikes, Nelson supported legislation to provide retroactive refunds for people who have had large flood insurance rate increases due to the sale or purchase of a home, cap average annual premium increases at 15 to 18 percent and allow subsidies for insurance rates that are based on current flood maps.
On June 27, 2013, Nelson co-sponsored the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2013 (S. 1254; 113th Congress), a bill that would reauthorize and modify the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 and would authorize the appropriation of $20.5 million annually through 2018 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to mitigate the harmful effects of algal blooms and hypoxia.
Environmental activists praised him for his work on legislation to restore the Gulf Coast after the BP oil spill.
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".
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."
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. 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 was not enough for some conservative groups.
In December 2006, Nelson made a trip to Syria to visit President Bashar Assad in Damascus. 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". The White House press secretary commented on the trip saying, "We don't think that members of Congress ought to be going there". The State Department also disapproved of the trip, but provided logistical support to Nelson.
|Republican||Edward J. Gurney||56,074||38.5|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||139,468||70.4|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||101,746||70.6|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||145,764||60.5|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||149,109||72.7|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||168,390||60.8|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||2,195,283||56.5||+4.8|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||2,890,548||60.3||+9.8|
|Democratic||Bill Nelson (Incumbent)||4,523,451||55.23||-5.07|
|Republican||Connie Mack IV||3,458,267||42.23||+4.13|
|U.S. House of Representatives|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 9th congressional district
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 11th congressional district
|Treasurer of Florida
|Party political offices|
|Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Florida
2000, 2006, 2012
Connie Mack III
|U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Florida
Served alongside: Bob Graham, Mel Martínez, George LeMieux, Marco Rubio
|Chair of the Senate Aging Committee
|Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee
|Current U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)|
|United States Senators by seniority