LAKEWOOD RANCH — With controversy raging around Confederate monuments nationwide — including one in Bradenton — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson waded cautiously into the debate Monday after a speech in Lakewood Ranch to the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
“My attitude is a monument, a statue, ought to signify unity instead of division,” Nelson, a Democrat who is running for reelection next year, said in an interview after the speech.
But when asked if Confederate monuments should be removed, Nelson said: “I think leaving it up to the good sense of the communities involved is the best thing to do.”
Nelson spoke a few hours before a pair of demonstrations planned at a confederate memorial outside the courthouse in downtown Bradenton. Groups ranging from the Manasota chapter of Black Lives Matter to Indivisible Bradenton Pro-gressive plan to protest against the monument, while members of America First-Team Manatee will gather to support keeping the memorial in place.
The Manatee County Commission voted 4-3 last week against a proposal to move the monument for “safekeeping.”
Efforts to remove Confederate monuments from prominent public spaces have popped up across the country in recent years but the issue exploded last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, when dueling protests over a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee turned deadly.
President Donald Trump added to the debate with controversial remarks criticizing “both sides” in the Charlottesville confrontation, which pitted white supremacists protesting the statue’s removal against a group of counter protesters. One of the counter protesters was run over and killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people. The suspected driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., was described by his high school social studies teacher as someone who idolized Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and had a “belief in white supremacy.”
Nelson criticized Trump’s Charlottesville comments Monday, saying “I think an elected official, whatever that position, ought to be about bringing us together instead of dividing us and I think the president’s remarks tended to divide instead of unify.”
But in deflecting the question of removing Confederate monuments, Nelson may be looking ahead to what could be a tough reelection fight in a state that Trump won.
Gov. Rick Scott is likely to challenge Nelson for his Senate seat next year. The senator has tried to position himself as a moderate who can appeal across the political spectrum, including to some of Trump’s supporters.
Nelson said Monday that one reason he is running for reelection is to try and bring more bipartisanship to Washington D.C..
“In this period of excessive partisanship and ideological rigidity I knew this was not the time for me to walk off the playing field,” Nelson said in responding to a questioner who noted that he has held public office for decades and suggested he might want to step aside “for somebody new.”
Among those in the crowd for Nelson’s speech Monday were five members of the Manatee County Commission, including Charles Smith, an African American Democrat who has been pushing for the removal of the Confederate monument – an obelisk donated by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1924 – from outside the courthouse.
“This local issue is part of a national issue,” Smith said as he left the Chamber event. “The congressional offices, the senators offices, all of them are going to have to be engaged on this because we as a people are not going to allow neo-Nazis, KKK, white supremacist groups to define our children with misinformation on history.”