Former U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez reunited to emphasize bipartisanship and civic engagement during a virtual Accent Speakers Bureau event Monday evening.
The hour-long Zoom event was moderated by Matthew Jacobs, director of the Bob Graham Center and ended with a 15-minute student Q&A. The former senators reminisced about what they felt were the good-old-days of bipartisanship in Senate, encouraged students to get politically involved and worried about polarization.
Nelson, a Democrat, and Martinez, a Republican, weren’t paid for their appearance and didn’t advocate for any general election candidates.
The event was organized by Accent Speakers Bureau, a UF Student Government program that hosts speakers, the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and Chomp the Vote, a SG program that aims to increase student voter turnout.
Nelson, a UF alum, served as Florida senator in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2019. Martinez served from 2005 to 2009. In the Monday event, the two reminisced on the times they worked together and the open communication they kept across party lines.
“Bill and I worked together like Florida brothers," Martinez said. “It's not all Republican and Democrat; we're all Americans.”
The two former senators drafted a 2006 bill banning oil drilling off Florida’s gulf coast which led to the ban still in place today. Despite existing on separate sides of the aisle, Martinez said they always tried to vote for Florida citizens.
Nelson and Martinez agreed bipartisan respect has been lost in U.S. politics.
"People have been trying to kill each other with words, and we need to turn that around in this country," Nelson said. "To build a democracy there has to be a modicum of consensus building, a modicum of respect for the other fella's point of view."
The Monday conversation was the third Accent event of the semester. Earlier, the bureau hosted events with lawyer and women’s rights activist Anita Hill and singer-songwriter Prince Royce, who were respectively paid $50,000 and $65,000 for their events.
The pair agreed foriegn influence through social media, false news from unverified sources and polarization of established news feeds has exacerbated partisanship.
They worried about what extreme polarization could mean for the election results. Moderator Jacobs asked the pair how the country could overcome an election where the results’ validity will likely be contested.
Martinez said the election outcome must be accepted, no matter what it is.
“This is not a call in the fourth quarter of a football game,” Martinez said. “This is our democracy."
Nelson and Martinez also talked about Florida’s position as an important swing state, where both presidential candidates have hosted multiple campaign events recently.
“It invites the presidential candidates to think about Florida, to come to our state,” Martinez said. “It keeps us in the focus of the national conversation.”
Florida has many important voting groups whose vote is still up in the air, Nelson said. He talked about the senior citizen vote. The normally strong Republican camp could move further left due to the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the population and the threats to social security benefits.
In the Q&A, students asked about the senators’ opinions on “cancel culture” and voting against party lines.
Nelson and Martinez said students should form independent voices based on facts, not party rhetoric or what the greater society deemed acceptable.
Another student asked about the senators views on top-down politics, where national politics dominate the political conscious, overtaking state and local issues.
“The Florida legislature is more involved with what goes on in your life,” Martinez said. “The death of the local papers makes a big difference in that. You don't get the coverage of the city commission. All you get is the food fight in Washington.”
Every participant on the Zoom call encouraged students watching to engage in politics.
Nelson and Martinez called for students to volunteer and intern for campaigns and find politicians who inspired them.
“We need to have a tradition of engagement," Martinez said. "Look for people with big ideas, not those who just want to get in the next job and win an election."
“Voting should be the floor, not the ceiling, of your civic engagement,” Jacobs said.
Lianna Hubbard is a reporter for The Alligator’s Investigative Team. The UF women’s study major began as a freelance reporter three years ago. She founded her community college’s award-winning newspaper before beginning at The Independent Florida Alligator. See an issue in your community or a story at UF? Send tips to her Twitter.