A rousing round of applause and a standing ovation greeted Sen. Bill Nelson as he walked into the Wildwood Community Center on Friday afternoon. And that applause grew even louder when he took the microphone from the podium.
“I knew The Villages would turn Democrat,” he said with a huge smile.
Throughout his nearly hour-long chat, Nelson, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2000, hammered at Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is challenging his re-election bid. He started out by telling the more than 200 supporters in attendance that he was in the Florida Panhandle Friday morning on a beach where a no trespassing sign was posted because of a bill Scott signed into law. And he took it one step further by taking Scott to task over Social Security, saying in 2011 he made a statement that hasn’t been forgotten.
“He said, ‘I want everyone to have a 401k.’ That’s privatization,” Nelson said. “So why are so many our fellow senior citizens supporting the Republicans that are trying to do away with Social Security and Medicare?”
Nelson said he’s also doing his best to protect Medicare, which he said was threatened by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in order to have money to pay for infrastructure needs.
“I can tell you that while I’m around, that’s not going to happen,” Nelson said to a lengthy round of applause.
As for Medicaid, Nelson, who also picked up an endorsement from the Alliance for Retired Americans on Friday, said Scott is preventing 800,000 Florida residents from receiving health care.
“They are too poor to be able to afford health insurance and are going without,” he said. “And that means when they get sick, they don’t have preventive care and they end up in the emergency room. They can’t pay for it and the hospital can’t eat it, so it goes into what all the rest of us pay in our health insurance premiums.”
Nelson added that he sees health care as a right.
“Who in the world wants someone to be in pain and suffering from a disease because they can’t afford health care?” he asked. “None of us. We’re passionate people as Americans.”
Along those same lines, Nelson called the situation where children were separated from their parents at the border a “debacle from the get-go” and recalled initially being turned away when he tried to visit some of them at the Homestead Detention Center.
“You just don’t do this,” he said. “It’s an American value that we have to want to keep children with their parents.”
Nelson also drew praise for the audience for standing up to the National Rifle Association. He said Americans shouldn’t fear having guns taken away because they are protected by the Second Amendment.
“I grew up on a ranch. I always had guns and I’ve always hunted all my life,” he said. “But an AR-15 or an AK-47 is not for hunting. It’s for killing.”
All told, Nelson said that close to $25 million has been spent in attack ads against him with no real change in poll numbers. But he vowed that his ads will be coming soon “when I see the whites of their eyes.” And he took it one step further with a bold prediction.
“I have a feeling that on Nov. 6, not only with regard to my race but also the governor’s race, we’re going to be singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” he said to loud applause. “So just keep the faith and be patient. You may be surprised – even in The Villages.”
After Nelson’s speech, Wildwood Commissioner Julian Green said he was happy the longtime senator picked his city for a campaign rally.
“To have him here locally shows that he’s not as big as people say he is,” Green said. “He’s big enough to touch everyone but small enough to come down to local cities and residents. So we’re happy to have him here.”
Deanna Dean, chair of the Sumter County Democratic Party, agreed. And she added that she appreciates Nelson’s many years of service at various levels of government since 1972.
“He’s genuine and you can trust him,” she said. “He works with both sides of the aisle. He’s a moderate and he’s not way out on one side or the other. That’s why I think he makes a great representative of the people.”