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In farewell, Nelson lauds Cabinet for collegial spirit

Recently elected to the U.S. Senate, the Florida insurance commissioner attends his last Cabinet meeting - in his hometown, Melbourne.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


MELBOURNE -- Bill Nelson knows what Congress needs to shape up: a good dose of the Florida Cabinet.

The outgoing insurance commissioner plans to bring it with him to Washington, D.C., next month when he is sworn in as Florida's junior senator.

"What a privilege it has been to work with a collegial body that has shown you can bridge philosophical differences, political differences and partisan differences," Nelson said Tuesday during his last meeting with the state Cabinet.

"The training that you have given me in this experience I will take with me to Washington now, with what appears to be a 50-50 Senate."

Like the Senate, the Florida Cabinet is a board of independently elected members. And like the Senate, the Cabinet has equal numbers (three each) of Democrats and Republicans -- not including Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

The difference, at least according to Nelson, is that the Cabinet is collegial, a word he used no fewer than four times Tuesday and a concept he's calling for in the Senate. "(The Cabinet) operates in exactly that fashion. A collegial fashion, a role model perhaps, that would do well for the nation to take note," Nelson said.

Fellow Cabinet members accepted Nelson's praise and pledge of Senate bipartisanship and then added a little praise of their own.

"When my son comes to Tallahassee he doesn't want to see my office, he wants to see the astronaut," fellow Democrat and Attorney General Bob Butterworth said, referring to Nelson's 1986 trip on the space shuttle Columbia.

"We know he is going to be a tremendous United States senator."

Tuesday's meeting was held in Nelson's hometown of Melbourne, one of several traveling meetings the Cabinet holds each year.

When not lauding each other or other members of the public for their achievements, several Cabinet members kept an anxious eye on the clock, waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the legality of a Florida Supreme Court decision allowing some ballot recounts.

That decision didn't come during Tuesday's meeting, although Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, both members of the State Canvassing Board, did create a flurry among reporters when they stepped out of the chambers at the same time.

Turns out they just went for bagels and coffee in the back room, not a joint briefing on the expected court ruling.

Crawford did joke with reporters outside the hall, saying he wasn't hurt by his exclusion from a skit on the Florida electoral mess that appeared on last week's Saturday Night Live. George W. Bush, Jeb Bush and Harris were among those parodied in a mock soap opera.

"My wife said if I was the one kissing Katherine (Harris), I'd be in big trouble," Crawford said.

Jeb Bush had his own quips Tuesday. When asked if he had spoken to the president about Florida's election during his recent White House visit, the governor answered: "Which president, my brother, or . . . ?"

For her part, Harris said she keeps her cell phone and beeper with her always as she waits for word of the Supreme Court's decision. Harris said her staff is working on a series of reforms intended to improve the accuracy of voting machines.

"My biggest push will be for technology," Harris said. She didn't specify how much that would cost or where the money would come from, saying only that she thought the state had "adequate funding."

But she's not in too great of a hurry to make changes, Harris said.

"It can't be a knee-jerk reaction," Harris said. Different ballots can have different sets of problems, she said.

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