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Nelson is pressed for answers
Insurance. Iraq. Immigration. People who just need help. The U.S. senator hears it all.
By DAVID DECAMP, Times Staff Writer
Published August 7, 2007
NEW PORT RICHEY - People crowd into the meeting chambers, some snapping up small cookies and others anxiously waiting for a man with answers - the senior U.S. senator from Florida.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, arrives late to a pleasant introduction.
"Our favorite senator," coos County Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, a Republican.
Then volleys of questions begin for Nelson, facing rows of residents in his light rose golf shirt and flat-front khaki pants. About 125 people find time Monday to come to the West Pasco Government Center. On the August break from Congress, this is his annual town hall meeting in Pasco.
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A 9-year-old boy in a wheelchair in the front row has cerebral palsy and no home, no Medicaid for health care. Can David Britt and his mom get help?
They have been homeless for three weeks, says the Rev. Dan Campbell of Community United Methodist Church in Holiday, part of a new homeless advocacy coalition. The boy needs help - a dire example of thousands in Pasco.
"How much - maybe 15, 20 minutes?" Nelson asks County Commissioner Michael Cox.
"Yes, sir," Cox replies, hurrying to find county staffers and a solution.
Next up: High insurance rates bother Bruce Adreon, a resident of Jasmine Lakes in Port Richey. Nelson grins in anticipation.
"Why can't you introduce into Congress legislation to give assistance to the people of Florida, the people that you as senator are to represent?" Adreon asks to applause.
"I have," Nelson, hand on hip, says to laughter.
His bill would create a national catastrophe fund to help lower risk to insurers, and drop customers' premiums.
The White House opposes it. Congress members from states that do not face hurricanes oppose it. He has but one co-sponsor, Florida's other senator, Republican Mel Martinez. Nelson acknowledges he's been unsuccessful.
He directs people to put the onus on state legislators to do more, to "absolutely insist" on insurance rates being part of the September special session on state spending.
Immigration reform? Tough to get done, he essentially tells several people who ask. America needs border security first, and then better enforcement on businesses that hire undocumented workers. Complicated.
Questions and comments wind down, but competition for Nelson's attention is so tough that Commissioner Jack Mariano's arm-waving fails in the back. At the 58-minute mark, Nelson notes it's been 80 minutes - the late start counts? - and he has not had a question about Iraq. He gets another one about immigration. He directs it to his staff to check out.
"Let me tell you about Iraq," he starts, reciting how America got wrong information before heading to war and how the recent surge won't work everyplace in Iraq. A woman shouts a question about eavesdropping on terrorists. Why did he vote for a bill that allows expanded secret eavesdropping of foreign terrorists' phone calls for six months? How can you trust the administration? she asks.
"I don't trust the attorney general any more than I would trust anything that you would not trust," he says uncomfortably.
The crowd laughs.
He eventually warns that security is an issue, and the bill will expire in six months - enough time to craft a better law.
"I can tell you, the chatter is up," Nelson says, though later he cannot actually chat about it.
With that, he walks from the last questions as Mariano waves his hand for attention.
Nelson might have thought he was done. He gets pigeonholed in a hallway near the door.
Good news: Cox lets Nelson know David Britt and his mother could have a home by Wednesday.
Pasco School Board member Kathryn Starkey lets him know he needs to improve the federal No Child Left Behind Law.
Nelson gets to sign an autograph. He gets outside.
More questions - Mariano presses Nelson to work hard on the national disaster insurance fund. Two final questions, and he grasps the car door.