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Bill Nelson
Bill Nelson.jpg
United States Senator
from Florida
Assumed office
January 3, 2001
Serving with Marco Rubio
Preceded by Connie Mack III
Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee
Assumed office
January 3, 2015
Preceded by John Thune
Chair of the Senate Aging Committee
In office
January 3, 2013 – January 3, 2015
Preceded by Herb Kohl
Succeeded by Susan Collins
Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida
In office
January 3, 1995 – January 3, 2001
Governor Lawton Chiles
Buddy MacKay
Jeb Bush
Preceded by Tom Gallagher
Succeeded by Tom Gallagher
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 11th district
9th (1979-1983)
In office
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
In office
November 7, 1972 – November 7, 1978
Preceded by Mary R. Grizzle
Succeeded by Tim Deratany
Personal details
Born Clarence William Nelson II
(1942-09-29) September 29, 1942 (age 75)
Miami, Florida, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Grace Cavert (m. 1972)
Children 2
Education University of Florida
Yale University (BA)
University of Virginia (JD)
Website Senate website
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1965–1968, 1970–1971 (Reserve)
1968–1970 (Active)
Rank US-O3 insignia.svg Captain
Bill Nelson, official NASA photo.jpg
NASA Payload Specialist
Time in space
6d 02h 03m
Missions STS-61-C
Mission insignia

Clarence William Nelson II (born September 29, 1942)[1] is an American politician of the Democratic Party serving as the senior United States Senator from Florida, in office since 2001. Nelson served in the Florida House of Representatives 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, serving 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 Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner and Fire Marshal of Florida, serving from 1995 to 2001.

In 2000 Nelson was elected to the U.S. Senate seat that had been 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 moderate Democrat.[3][4][5][6] As of 2018, he is the only Democratic statewide elected official in Florida.[7]

Early and personal life[edit]

Nelson was born on September 29, 1942, in Miami, Florida, the only child of Nannie Merle (née Nelson) and Clarence William Nelson.[8][9] He is of Scottish, Irish, English, and Danish descent.[10][11] His father died of a heart attack when Nelson was 14 and his mother of Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) when he was 24.[12] Nelson grew up in Melbourne, Florida, where he attended Melbourne High School.[13]

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.[14] In 2005, he joined the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.[15]

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.[16] He received a law degree from the University of Virginia.[17]

In 1965, during the Vietnam War, 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.[17]

In 1972, Nelson married Grace Cavert. The couple have two adult children: Charles William "Bill Jr." Nelson[18] and Nan Ellen Nelson.[13][19]


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. The mission's elapsed time was 6 days, 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 51 seconds. It was the last successful Space Shuttle flight before the Challenger accident, which occurred only ten days after Columbia's return. Nelson published a book about his spaceflight experience in 1988, Mission: An American Congressman's Voyage to Space.[20]

Early political career[edit]

Florida legislature[edit]

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.[21] He won reelection in 1974 and 1976.[22]

U.S. House of Representatives[edit]

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., chose to run for governor rather than for re-election.[23] In 1980, Nelson was reelected to that district, which encompassed all of Brevard and part of Orange County. He was redistricted to the 11th District, encompassing all of Brevard and parts of Orange, Indian River, and Osceola counties, and won re-election in 1982, 1984, 1986, and 1988. He remained a member of the U.S. House until 1991.

1990 gubernatorial election[edit]

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 Marshal[edit]

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 won re-election to the office, again defeating Ireland.

In 2000, Nelson announced that he would be running for the United States Senate seat held by retiring Republican Connie Mack III.[24] Florida's "resign-to-run" law requires an incumbent office holder seeking another elective office to submit an irrevocable resignation from the office he or she currently holds unless that tenure would end anyway before the office holder would, if elected, assume the new position. The candidate may designate the effective date of the resignation to be in the future, but it must be no later than the date on which he or she would assume the new office. This law 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 on which new Senators would be sworn in.[25]

United States Senate[edit]


2000 election[edit]

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.

2006 election[edit]

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.[26]

Evangelical Christian activist James Dobson declared that Democrats, including Nelson, would be "in the 'bull's-eye'" if they supported efforts to block Bush's judicial nomineess.[27] 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.[28]

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, while many Florida Democrats were eager to vote against her for the same reason.[29] 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.[30]

Nelson focused on safe issues, portraying himself as a bipartisan centrist problem-solver.[29] He obtained the endorsement of all 22 of Florida's daily newspapers.[31] 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.[32]

As the election approached, polls showed Harris trailing Nelson by 26 to 35 points.[33] Nelson transferred about $16.5 million in campaign funds to other Democratic candidates,[34] and won the election with 60.4% of the vote to Harris's 38.2%.[35]

2012 election[edit]

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."[36] 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%.[37]


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".[38]

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."[39]

Committee assignments[edit]

In the 113th United States Congress, Nelson served on the following committees:

In the 114th United States Congress, Nelson served on the following committees:

Political positions[edit]

According to ratings by the National Journal, Nelson's votes have been liberal on economic matters, moderate on social issues, and center-left on foreign policy.[40][not in citation given] Nelson received a score from Crowdpac of 3.5L, with 10L being the most liberal and 10C being the most conservative.[41][not in citation given]

The only Florida Democrat in statewide office as of 2017, he was described by Politico in March of that year as "a Senate indicator institutional centrist." Politico wrote that the Democratic Party "is shifting left and so is he." One operative stated that "he has a steady left-wing voting record".[42]

As of July 2017, Nelson enjoyed a 53% approval rating and 25% disapproval rating, with 22% of survey respondents having no opinion on his job performance.[43]

Interest group ratings[edit]

Anti-war activists protest Democrat senators who supported Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, December 2017

Nelson scores 100% on Planned Parenthood Action Fund's Congressional Scorecard.[44] He also scores 100% on NARAL's Congressional Record.[45]

Nelson scored a 28.4 lifetime rating on the American Conservative Union's scale of 0 to 100, but a 0 out of 100 in its 2015 ratings.[46] He scored a 9 out of 100 on the 2016 FreedomWorks ratings.[47] He scored a 7 out of 100 on Club for Growth's 2015 scorecard and an 11 out of 100 on its lifetime ratings; in 2015-16 the National Tax Limitation Committee gave him a 5% rating.[48][49] He scored a 90% from the Americans for Democratic Action in 2015, the most recent year they made ratings public.[50]

He has received a 19% rating from the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (2016), 5% from Club for Growth (2016), 17% from National Taxpayers Union (2016).[48]

Vote Smart issue positions[edit]

Vote Smart, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization that collects and distributes information on candidates for public office in the United States, "researched presidential and congressional candidates' public records to determine candidates' likely responses on certain key issues." According to Vote Smart's 2016 analysis, Nelson generally supports pro-choice legislation, opposes U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, supports reducing defense spending in order to balance the budget, supports an income tax increase in order to balance the budget, supports federal spending as a means of promoting economic growth, supports providing tax incentives to businesses for the purpose of job creation, supports requiring states to adopt federal education standards, opposes reducing restrictions on offshore energy production, supports the federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, supports restrictions on the purchase and possession of guns, opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act, opposes requiring immigrants who are unlawfully present to return to their country of origin before they are eligible for citizenship, and opposes allowing individuals to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts.[48]



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.[51]

Tax policy

On several occasions, Nelson has voted to reduce or eliminate the estate tax,[52] 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.[53]

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

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.[54] 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."[55]

He and Susan Collins introduced legislation in 2015 that would "make it easier for smaller businesses to cut administrative costs by forming multiple-employer 401(k)-style plans."[56]

Government spending

Nelson voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, often referred to as economic stimulus, proposed by President Obama.[57] 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.[54]

Credit scores

In May 2013, Nelson 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. Nelson suggested a penalty if the issue was not addressed within ninety days.[58]

Flood insurance

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.[59][60] In 2014, following an outcry by Florida property owners facing steep flood insurance rate hikes,[61] 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.[62]


In September 2014, Nelson said the U.S. should hit back at ISIS immediately because "the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that's intent on barbaric cruelty."[63]

He supported the "Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act." Introduced in 2013 and again in 2015, it would keep guns from people with suspected terrorist links.[64]

Health care[edit]

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.[citation needed]

In October 2017 Nelson wrote a letter to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asking the CDC to prioritize Zika prevention.[65]

Space exploration[edit]

Nelson is seen as a major supporter of the space program.[citation needed] In 2010 he proposed creating as many as "five business enterprise zones as magnets for commercial space ventures".[citation needed] 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."[citation needed]

In March 2010 Nelson complained that Obama had made a mistake in canceling NASA's Constellation program.[66] 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.[67]

LGBT rights[edit]

On December 18, 2010, Nelson voted in favor of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010,[68][69] 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 announced that he no longer opposed 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."[70]

Foreign policy[edit]

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.[71] 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.[72]

Syria visit

In December 2006, Nelson made a trip to Syria to visit President Bashar Assad in Damascus.[73] 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".[74] The White House press secretary commented on the trip saying, "We don't think that members of Congress ought to be going there".[74] The State Department also disapproved of the trip, but provided logistical support to Nelson.[75]

Foreign aid

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."[76] 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.[76]

Gun control[edit]

In 2012, the National Rifle Association gave Nelson a "F" rating for his support of gun control.[77] Nelson is an advocate for new gun control laws including an Assault Weapons Ban and imposing a ban on magazines over ten rounds.[78] 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.[79]

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.”[80] Both he and Marco Rubio supported the bills.[81]


In 2011, Nelson co-sponsored the RESTORE Act, which directed money from BP fines to states affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.[82]

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.[83][84]

Security and surveillance[edit]

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.[85]

In January 2018, Nelson voted to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the National Security Agency to extend a program of warrantless spying on internet and phone networks.[86] In 2015, he had called for a permanent extension of the law.[87]

Electoral history[edit]

Florida State House of Representatives election 1972[88]
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
United States Senate election in Florida, 2006
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
United States Senate election in Florida, 2012


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  86. ^ Ianelli, Jerry (January 18, 2018). "Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson Votes to Extend Trump's NSA Spying Powers". Miami New Times. Retrieved 19 January 2018. 
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  88. ^ Lawrence, D.G., "Democrats keep control of state legislature" Orlando Sentinel. 1972-11-08.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Louis Frey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 9th congressional district

Succeeded by
Michael Bilirakis
Preceded by
Dan Mica
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 11th congressional district

Succeeded by
Jim Bacchus
Political offices
Preceded by
Tom Gallagher
Treasurer of Florida
Succeeded by
Tom Gallagher
Party political offices
Preceded by
Hugh Rodham
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Florida
(Class 1)

2000, 2006, 2012
Most recent
U.S. Senate
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Connie Mack III
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Florida
Served alongside: Bob Graham, Mel Martínez, George LeMieux, Marco Rubio
Preceded by
Herb Kohl
Chair of the Senate Aging Committee
Succeeded by
Susan Collins
Preceded by
John Thune
Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee
Current U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Mike Crapo
United States Senators by seniority
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Tom Carper


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