There are certain signs that indicate a politician’s campaign is mired. Sometimes they change messaging, other times a media blitz occurs -- or maybe they become particularly vocal and ever-present with a breaking news item. These are signs a candidate has recognized a need to become more visible to the voters.
Then you have Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who finds himself in a notably unfortunate position.
How do we know? Because the biggest newspaper in the country felt the need to step in and “introduce” to his constituents this politician -- who is in his fifth decade of service. It doesn't take a poli-sci Master's degree to ferret out trouble when a sitting senator with 18 years of incumbency needs a coming-out party in The New York Times.
There is no lack of mirth to see the Democratic senator, entrenched in D.C. since the 1970s, announced with the headline, “Meet Bill Nelson, the Under-The-Radar Senate Candidate.” But fret not, The Times is very dutiful in delivering all the introductory information about Florida’s congressional cypher.
There is sound reason for this cavalry charge from The Grey Lady -- Rick Scott has been trending ahead of the senator in the polls, and this interrupts the narrative of an inevitable Blue Wave in November.
Reporter Patricia Mazzei delivers more than 1,500 words to illustrate the man who has been providing leadership in the Sunshine State for decades. While the newspaper included a piece in early April concerning Rick Scott’s official announcement that he was running for the Senate seat, Bill Nelson was quoted in the Scott article nearly as often as the governor. Here, it is all Nelson, and afterward, darn if you aren't still left with a fleeting impression of the man.
One of the more notable passages involves Nelson making a surprise visit to the second largest facility housing immigrant minors in the country, located in Homestead. “Mr. Nelson made headlines when he led an effort to inspect a large shelter for migrant children in South Florida,” writes Mazzei. A comical line for those in Florida who saw firsthand: The main reason there were any headlines was, this “spontaneous” visit managed to include dozens of members of the media he and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had dragged along.
It certainly was not the result of Nelson discovering anything objectionable in the facility. After facility administrators denied him entry that day, Nelson went on one of his muted tirades. Without raising his voice, he mentioned how he just learned of this facility, how he was dismayed at the policy leading to this reality, and how he feared that over 1,000 children separated from parents may be sleeping on the floors.
Embarrassingly, every one of the senator’s proclamations was unwound in a matter of days. The immigration policy that so dismayed him? He voted for it. His surprise at the existence of the facility? It has been operational and housing immigrant youths since 2016. Yes, that means the practice of housing these children right where Nelson stood was in place during the Obama administration. Further, Rick Scott had sent notice of the facility opening to Nelson’s office that year.
More than those details, the dramatics behind the visit also dissipated quickly. While this puff piece mentions how headlines were created with Nelson’s arrival, the story disappeared days later when press and politicos were invited in to tour the facility. The conditions showed no kids in cages eating gruel from dog bowls. It is a dorm-like atmosphere, where the kids are given a week’s worth of clothes, three square meals, and spend their days attending classes and engaging in activities.
And only a few dozen of the 1,175 children were cases of separation, as 95 percent had come to this country unaccompanied by parents. These details were reported by many in the media, including ... the New York Times. In fact, one of their reporters gave a detailed account of the inside of the facility -- Nelson's puff-piece writer, the same Patricia Mazzei. (Here is her Twitter thread describing the conditions she saw.)
A primary motivator for Nelson’s visit was his need to shore up his standing with a core group of voters in the state -- Latinos. Scott has been showing stronger than expected polling among that demographic, which is something Nelson had come to depend on. He is based in Orlando, home of one of the thickest concentrations of Puerto Rican transplants in the state.
As I had looked into things regarding these new Boricua arrivals, the political decisions of the voting block is not assured. While many assume there is an allegiance to the Democratic party, which is favored on the island, once they have arrived on the mainland, many Puerto Rican transplants have become Independent voters, due in some large part to the island's government being mired in an economic crisis. That has been an original cause of the flight of many residents.
Rick Scott made a name for himself as a regular presence amid the devastation of Hurricane Maria. He visited the island on many relief trips and instituted policies to aid those who came to the state in the aftermath. As a result, he has some name recognition among the new voters, a group Nelson once had regarded as his own.
The challenges facing Bill Nelson on the campaign are evident, but they are not the kind of challenges you expect to see a candidate facing after spending three full terms in office. For The New York Times to feel the need to introduce the veteran politician to his own voting base is a revealing detail.
Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.