Joe Henderson: Bill Nelson visit was right thing to do (and good politics)

Bill Nelson

The best thing that could have happened to Bill Nelson’s campaign so far took place Tuesday.

Florida’s senior U.S. Senator, in a fight for his political life, traveled to inspect the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children facility.

It’s a holding camp keeping an estimated 1,000 children — some came to America without their parents, and others because their parents are being held elsewhere on suspicion of trying to enter the country illegally.

Given what is going on in Texas, where children are separated from their immigrant parents, Nelson was well within the scope of his job to make sure there is no funny business going on at the Homestead facility.

Nelson said he set up the visit in advance through proper Health and Human Services channels but was advised Tuesday it would have to be delayed because applications for such visits must be submitted to two weeks in advance.

He went there anyway but was blocked from going inside for a firsthand look.

“I thought by the time I got here, they (would have) thought better,” Nelson said.

“Refusing a Senator, the Congresswoman (Debbie Wasserman Schultz), and the Representative (state Rep. Kionne McGhee) of checking on the welfare of children and also finding out about the welfare of children that have been pulled away from their parents.”

He might have found a locked door there, but it was campaign gold and it didn’t cost a cent.

As the cameras rolled, Nelson let ‘em have it.

“They obviously are hiding something,” he said. “They are using the excuse (that) you have to apply two weeks in advance (to visit). That is what the deputy secretary told me this morning.

“And I said, ‘Obviously, that is balderdash. You know better than telling me that we’ve got to fill out a form two weeks ahead of time when children’s lives are at stake So, they obviously are trying to cover up. They don’t want us to see it.”

Nelson’s righteous anger should make his Senate opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, squirm a bit.

After all, after hitting Nelson for weeks with a barrage of TV ads suggesting he has been in Washington too long and is out of touch, it raised the question: Why hasn’t the Governor gone to check?

After all, he is top elected official in this state.

To be fair, Scott has spoken out against the policy of separating children from their parents.

In this case, though, he ceded the stage — and a whole bunch of free media — to Nelson.

That’s blunder No. 1.

Blunder No. 2 was the refusal by HHS to allow Nelson’s visit to continue. Officials could have told him that cameras had to stay outside but to walk around and check things for himself.

By blocking Nelson, HHS only served to heighten suspicion that something really is wrong there. If he eventually is allowed in and everything looks good, suspicion will be that the place was cleaned up before letting Nelson inside.

It hasn’t been a good week for the Trump administration on this issue.

The president has been loudly criticized on both sides of the political aisle for the zero-tolerance policy that led to this fight.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to use the Bible to justify the policy, and there are calls for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of Clearwater to resign.

Nelson’s visit will undoubtedly be criticized as a political stunt by some, but after absorbing body blows from Scott’s TV blitz, it was a strong countermove.

It had the added the virtue of being the right to do.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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