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    Nelson for U.S. Senate

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000

    When Floridians elect a U.S. senator, they tend to keep him. The popularity of such perennial favorites as Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles has owed to their standing on the same moderate middle ground as most Florida voters. When they elect a conservative like Connie Mack, who's leaving by choice after two terms, they prefer that he not have fangs or quills.

    Of the two major contenders to succeed Mack, only Democrat Bill Nelson fits the Florida mold of responsible moderation. Nelson brings to the race not only 12 competent prior years in Congress, but the six most recent years as Florida's treasurer and insurance commissioner, where he has proved himself in battle with special interests.

    His Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, has been too doctrinaire throughout his 20 years in Congress -- where he preached but did not practice term limits -- and his conservatism has been less compassionate than cruel. He has been conspicuously indulgent toward special interests, especially banking and the gun lobby.

    The gun control issue is one of several that highlights how Nelson is in step with most Floridians and McCollum is not. At critical junctures, Nelson supported handgun-purchase waiting periods that McCollum opposed. Nelson supports assault weapons bans that McCollum opposed. Nelson is for leaving nothing of the gun-show loophole that McCollum, on behalf of the NRA, tried to preserve for "small" shows. When Floridians voted overwhelmingly for waiting periods and against the gun-show loophole, McCollum didn't get it.

    Nelson is pro-choice. McCollum is for rigid state intervention in a woman's most personal, private decisions.

    Nelson opposes vouchers. McCollum endorses them uncritically.

    Nelson is for a higher minimum wage. McCollum isn't.

    Nelson advocates comprehensive legislation to protect the privacy of consumers from banks, insurance companies and securities brokers that profit by trading personal information. But when McCollum eagerly voted as a member of the House Banking Committee to let those special interests merge, he helped to defeat provisions that would have required them to obtain consent before personal medical and financial information could be shared.

    Conservatives above all should be instinctively wary of the misuse or abuse of government power. But when police agencies ask for more tools to pry into private affairs, McCollum's characteristic response is to give them whatever they want. The anti-terrorism act he supported in 1996 has all but nullified the precious right of habeas corpus for all Americans, not just those under sentence of death at whom it was nominally aimed, and McCollum appears indifferent to the heightened risk that innocent people will be put to death. The deportation law he supported that year has been unspeakably harsh on immigrants who have been expelled for minor crimes committed before the law was passed, but McCollum was indifferent to that too until the son of a Florida Republican official was banished to Canada for not one but several felony charges. McCollum's response was to introduce a private bill providing for the return of his friend's son, but no others.

    Campaign fundraising documents exposed by the Wall Street Journal show that McCollum heavily targeted banks and credit-card companies on whose behalf he has been promoting legislation to make it harder for borrowers to discharge their debts in bankruptcy.

    Nothing is more helpful to voters than to observe how the people they elect mature in office and how they adjust to the evolving needs of their constituencies. During the years they served together in Congress, Nelson and McCollum voted together more often than not. But Nelson has grown more thoughtful in his statewide responsibilities while the high point of McCollum's career -- as he seemed to see it then -- was to pursue President Clinton's impeachment long past the point that most Floridians, like most other Americans, were sick of it. McCollum began the current campaign with a media strategy reinventing him as a moderate, but returned to form with fund-raising letters painting Clinton as a nemesis who's out to get him.

    Voters will find five other Senate candidates on the Nov. 7 ballot, but none is in contention, and to vote for any of them would cede the opportunity to help decide whether it will be Nelson or McCollum who succeeds to a seat held by only three other people since 1946. The prize is precious, the responsibility is awesome, and the contrast is clear. The Times strongly recommends Bill Nelson.

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