For the first time in years, Central Florida won’t be the home base for a U.S. Senator.
Just a decade ago, Orlando was home to not one but two U.S. Senators, with Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez living just a few blocks from each other in the neighborhood of Baldwin Park.
“The Publix manager was always marveling that there were two Senators in line at the cashier,” Martinez recalled. “And Bill was an early morning runner, and he would always come by the house … I didn’t delay him from his run, but I served him some Gatorade and sent him on his way.”
Before that, Republican Paula Hawkins of Winter Park served in the Senate alongside Democratic U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles of Lakeland in the 1980s, and Republican Edward Gurney of Winter Park overlapped with Democratic Senator Spessard Holland of Bartow in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But now, as Central Florida and the I-4 Corridor grows stronger in importance in both state and national elections, it will lose its local presence in the upper chamber as Southwest Floridian Rick Scott joins U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami on Tuesday. Scott didn’t join the new Senators sworn in Thursday, choosing instead to serve out his term as governor until Ron DeSantis is inaugurated.
“It can be important,” Martinez said of having a regional connection in the Senate. “And it’s not just about geography, it’s about local knowledge and interest. … We’ve ceased having earmarks, but you could still steer things to the local community.”
As a former Orange County mayor, “I put Lynx under my wing,” he said of the county bus system. “I knew about the need for mass transit, and since we didn’t have a rail project at the time, I thought it could be of some help to beef up the bus fleet.”
Martinez also pointed to the Veterans Administration hospital, which was selected for a site in Lake Nona in 2007.
While a number of lawmakers and officials played a hand in its location and its funding, including U.S. Rep. John Mica, as a Republican Senator from Central Florida, “I was in a unique place and time to nudge [President Bush’s] Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jim Nicholson. It was right there on the cusp, and I could juice it up.”
Equally important, though, is whether a state’s two Senators work well together – and when they’re neighbors, it tends to help.
“Sen. Nelson and I were extremely close,” Martinez said. “It didn’t hurt that we flew on the same flight to Orlando many, many times. And we would talk on the plane, when we landed, maybe we’d share a car. There was a level of friendship and trust.”
“There’s a whole lot of citizens of Florida and only two Senators,” Crotty said. “It’s the ability to reach across the aisle and work together that matters, whether you live in South Florida, Central Florida or the Panhandle.”
Still, said Democratic consultant Dick Batchelor, “Power abhors a vacuum. And I think we have a vacuum of sorts. … Who’s going to take that role?”
Nelson, who grew up in Melbourne and represented a district that included the Space Coast and Central Florida in Congress, moved to Orlando after his election as Senator in 2000. He would hold regular press conferences at his Orlando office, often inviting visitors to talk about issues such as student loan rates and health care.
Rubio, who also has an office in Orlando, visited Central Florida six times in 2018, including attending the Republican Party meeting at the Rosen Centre in January, discussing Puerto Rico issues in April and September in Kissimmee and meeting with the Greater Orlando Sports Commission in December about Orlando’s World Cup bid.
Scott, meanwhile, has been a common sight in Central Florida, holding monthly announcements on economic issues in town and even kicking off his Senate campaign at an Orlando business.
“I think his style as governor, especially his second term as governor, was to be almost omnipresent,” Batchelor said. “He would show up to dedicate a Wawa.”
Both Rubio and Scott, he said, “need to pay attention to Orlando. … And it’s extremely important for 2020. With a Republican governor and two Republican U.S. Senators, they’ve got to deliver Florida in [the presidential election].”
Martinez also said the region’s other elected officials need to step up to promote their interests now that there’s no convenient local voice in the Senate.
“It’s more incumbent than ever that local leadership not just do a once-a-year, fly-in type thing,” Martinez said. “If I were Mayor Buddy Dyer or Mayor Jerry Demings, I’d use my frequent flyer miles from here to Washington.”
Democrat Linda Chapin, who preceded Martinez as mayor, said the region’s congressional delegation will also play an increased role – especially as its three Democratic sophomore representatives, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, are now in the majority.
Those same House members could one day bring Central Florida another Senator, she said.
“They’re relatively young and have already garnered national attention,” Chapin said. “Any one of them could be a candidate in a future Senate race.”