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Rivals' vote records narrow gap

Bill McCollum and Bill Nelson agreed almost 60 percent of the time on key votes in the U.S. House in the 1980s.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 6, 2000

Here's a tough question for Republican U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum in his Senate race against Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson:

How do you portray your opponent as too liberal for mainstream Florida when you frequently agreed with the guy during the decade you shared in Congress?

And for Democrat Nelson: How do you accuse McCollum of being a right-wing extremist when you regularly sided with him on key congressional issues -- at least until your stance on such hot-button matters as abortion began to shift?

The race to succeed Republican Connie Mack in the U.S. Senate offers a nice quirk for voters. The major candidates served together in the House of Representatives during the 1980s and left extensive tracks for comparing philosophies and records.

What's clear from those records is that, despite the candidates' claims, this election is no simple contest between liberal and conservative ideology. Nelson was among the more conservative Democrats in the Florida delegation, and he frequently parted ways with liberals such as the late Claude Pepper.

In 1986, for example, both McCollum and Nelson voted to weaken federal gun control laws. The liberal group Americans for Democratic Action gave Nelson an overall score of 15 for the year's key votes, and McCollum a score of 0. By comparison, then-Sen. Al Gore in 1986 received a 70 from the group.

"Nobody could paint Bill Nelson as a liberal. It's just an absurd concept," said Greg Farmer, who in 1988 ran the Senate campaign of Democrat Buddy MacKay, who narrowly lost to Connie Mack.

Though MacKay was in large part a fiscal conservative in Congress, Mack's attack was "Hey Buddy, you're a liberal." Mack's campaign consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, is famous for tagging opponents as liberals, and this year Finkelstein is working for McCollum.

It was a conservative vote, not a liberal one, that put Nelson on the defensive last week. President Clinton pointed to GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney's 1986 vote against a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela's release from a South African prison.

Republicans eagerly pointed out that Nelson had voted the same way.

Like McCollum, who also voted against the resolution, Nelson said he opposed it because it also formally recognized the African National Congress, which had communist ties. Unlike McCollum, Nelson had a record of supporting economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government.

Still, the episode underscored how often McCollum and Nelson have been on the same page philosophically. Even their personal styles are similar; both are stiff, career politicians from Central Florida who look like former Boy Scouts.

Although McCollum has been more involved in complex legislative initiatives than Nelson was in Congress, more often than not they voted alike on contentious issues. On the 158 key votes Congressional Quarterly identified from 1981 to 1990, they voted the same way nearly 60 percent of the time.

On foreign policy and national defense issues, in particular, they were like-minded.

Both consistently supported aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, opposed nuclear test bans, favored the Strategic Defense Initiative, and backed controversial initiatives such as the B-1 bomber and MX missile. They both voted against selling U.S. radar planes to Saudi Arabia.

Areas where they frequently disagreed included gun control and civil rights.

Nelson supported the Equal Rights Amendment, broadening anti-discrimination laws, creating the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and paying reparations to Japanese-Americans imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. McCollum opposed those measures.

On gun control, both McCollum and Nelson voted to weaken gun control measures that had been adopted in 1968, but Nelson supported bans on assault weapons and efforts to require waiting periods on handgun purchases. McCollum has been a key opponent of waiting periods and voted against the assault weapons ban.

Budget issues are a little murkier, but generally both were fiscal conservatives who supported efforts to cut spending and balance the budget. On spending matters, though, each of the men's efforts to cut spending and trim the deficit offers ammunition for the other.

Nelson can point to McCollum's votes to increase Medicare premiums, to cut education and against child nutrition programs.

McCollum can point to Nelson's votes to freeze cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and to pass the 1990 budget deal, which broke then-President George Bush's "No new taxes" pledge. Yet, early in his career, Nelson voted against the creation of the Department of Education.

"(Nelson) talks about his image of being a low-tax or no-tax fiscal conservative, but he's not," said Bill Coletti, executive director of the McCollum campaign. "What he is, is inconsistent. He was back and forth on various tax cuts."

That is an emerging theme of the McCollum campaign: that Nelson, much like Bill Clinton and Gore, remakes himself depending on the political winds. McCollum will note that he has stuck by his principles throughout his career, but he wants voters to question whether Nelson really has them.

"It is difficult (to paint Nelson as a liberal)," Coletti acknowledged. "There are pieces of Bill Nelson's record that are very liberal, but what's more important is the issue of hypocrisy. There's his pattern of inconsistency, and his tendency to flip-flop."

McCollum did not return calls for this story, but Nelson scoffed at the charge of inconsistency.

"My record and my values are where the mainstream of Floridians are, and I think Bill McCollum is far to the right of that mainstream," Nelson said.

He described himself as conservative on fiscal issues but moderate on social ones and expressed surprise that he and McCollum voted alike so often on key issues.

At times, though, Nelson was unpredictable, sometimes supporting Democratic budget proposals and then backing Republican proposals. Congressional Quarterly, an affiliate of Times Publishing, which also owns the St. Petersburg Times, said in 1984 that such moves brought Nelson "a reputation among Democratic colleagues for being unpredictable, if not flaky, in his voting."

Nelson has also shifted on abortion.

Until mid-1989, he supported the National Right to Life Committee's anti-abortion agenda, just like McCollum, who opposes allowing abortions unless a mother's life is in danger.

Both voted to prohibit federal funding for abortions for poor women unless their health was endangered, even in cases of rape or incest. Both also voted to prohibit the District of Columbia from funding abortions.

But in 1989, abortion rights supporters were galvanized by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave states leeway to restrict the procedure, and Nelson was preparing to run for governor. He dropped his opposition to funding abortions in cases of rape or incest. In 1990, he voted against the ban on funding abortions in the District of Columbia.

"Clearly, he made a political decision to change sides," said Doug Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

Nelson, however, said the switch was not political nor particularly dramatic. The changes were "intricate little differences and minor nuances" that resulted from his "greater sensitivity" to women, he said, and that did nothing to change his fundamental beliefs about abortion.

"I abhor abortion. I favor adoption. But I do not believe the government should interfere with a woman's right to choose," he said.

He does not favor a ban on abortions, but he also does not support federal funding for abortions for poor women, except when the mother's health is endangered or in cases of rape or incest, Nelson said. As a senator, Nelson said, he would not vote for or against a Supreme Court nominee solely based on the nominee's abortion views.

"On balance, we're not comfortable calling him pro-choice, not at all. Mixed choice at best," said Julie Piscitelli of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

"We want people to evolve . . . but I don't feel like we know where he is right now at all."

- Researchers Kitty Bennett and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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