If the spin doctors working Bill McCollum's campaign for the U.S. Senate had their way, most of the voting public would believe the following story about him: He was a small-town boy who came from a rural Central Florida town, overcame the loss of his mother at an early age to advance, almost out of nowhere, to the United States House of Representatives `see Linda Chapin's legacy or hard battles and great luck`, where he governed for 20 spectacular years as the voice of conscience to a country in dire need of guidance.
Part of this account is true. McCollum is from Brooksville, a homogeneous, aging town of 7,500 located 75 miles west of Orlando on Highway 50. He did lose his mother after a lengthy illness when he was 6. And of course he has represented a Republican stronghold district made up of most of Orange County and the area surrounding Kissimmee in the House of Representatives since Ronald Reagan first took office.
Whether McCollum, as a ramrod-tough conservative and as one of 13 Republican House Managers during President Clinton's impeachment, qualifies as a public conscience will be left to the historians. Already the signs are that McCollum was just another partisan; only the campaign literature given to his closest supporters mentions his impeachment role.
In debates and on the stump, the 56-year-old McCollum speaks of the issues of the day: saving Medicare and Social Security, cutting taxes, bettering education. Bill Nelson, the Democratic challenger and state insurance commissioner, has taken the attack to McCollum, pointing out the Republican's poor voting record on many social issues. "I can't let him run away from his record," Nelson said in a recent debate.
Nelson is not exactly the anti-McCollum; he and McCollum voted alike about 60 percent of the time both were in Congress in the mid-1980s. But it should be easier for Nelson to paint himself as a moderate. He has the backing of Handgun Control Inc. (the nonprofit created by Jim and Sarah Brady), the Florida AFL-CIO, the Florida Police Benevolent Society and most major Central Florida daily newspapers. McCollum, meanwhile, portrays himself as the moderate by pilfering sound bites from George W's. commercials. "I'm for better government, not bigger government," McCollum says often. Or "Washington doesn't know best. Government works best that is close to the people." And just before a debate topic invariably gets away, he says, "We may not always agree on everything."
The last comment is supposed to disarm his critics and show that McCollum, who's been labeled an extremist, hardliner and hardass, really is a moderate at heart. Moderates, you see, can disagree. Extremists or hardliners cannot.
But McCollum is wrong on this count: It's not simply a matter of people disagreeing with him. It is the degree to which they have opposed his politics ... which have much less to do with taxes, education and Social Security than with a dubious history of helping big business, hurting the environment and increasing the hysteria surrounding immigration and the 30-year-old "war on drugs."
In this election year, many of McCollum's foes have stepped forward to acknowledge how pathetic his record in Congress has been. Just last week, David Daniel, the state outreach director for the League of Conservation Voters, was in town to denounce McCollum's record on the environment. Daniel pointed out at a Lake Eola press conference that McCollum supported the 1995 Dirty Water Bill, which would have rolled back many of the protections of the landmark Clean Water Act. The act, signed by President Nixon in 1972, has routinely been praised for cleaning up one-third of the nation's waterways and cutting development in the country's wetlands from 460,000 acres a year to 70,000 a year.
According to Daniel, McCollum has consistently voted to weaken the nation's toxic clean-up laws and in 1997 voted in favor of a bill drafted by the National Association of Homebuilders, which has contributed to McCollum's campaign for years, that would hinder local governments from planning and managing their own growth.
McCollum, meanwhile, is trying to play to his strengths. His press releases highlight that he's recently authored a bill, signed by President Clinton on Oct. 16, that will turn 41.6 miles of the Wekiva River into a federally protected area. But, Daniel asks, where was McCollum the 19 years prior to the Wekiva River clean-up? McCollum's lifetime record of voting on LCV issues is just 27 percent, meaning that of the issues the League has marked as important to conservation, McCollum has voted in favor just 27 percent of the time. (In 1999, his record was 13 percent.)
"The true test of a member of Congress is not when a bill passes 434 to 1," Daniel says. "The true test is when the choice is between clean water and clean air and the corporations who are polluters. His record reflects that he stands with polluters."
McCollum sees himself as a protege of Connie Mack, the Republican senator McCollum hopes to replace. It is fitting that McCollum see himself in Mack's shadow. According to LCV, in 1999 Mack's environmental voting record was a perfect zero.
On the campaign trail, McCollum has tried to present a kinder, less-stiff politician than he has been known to be. He wears Dockers and a tieless blue button-down shirt. He speaks and moves fluidly, often using three fingers to gesture to the public and then to himself. His oversized glasses, symmetrical haircut and thin face give the impression that he is a Scoutmaster or school disciplinarian. It is hard to stand next to him without feeling as if you've done something wrong.
It is here on the stump where many of the ironies of McCollum's record begin to catch up with him. Several weekends ago, McCollum was on the same lineup to beg for votes as several other Republican stalwarts ... Ric Keller, Jennifer Carrol and George P. Bush, the half-Latino nephew of George W.
The audience was the Hispanic Coalition, a grass-roots political organization that recently endorsed George W. for president. It was obvious that most members of the audience were there to see George P., who has become the political version of Ricky Martin this election season. McCollum, when he took the podium, stressed good relations with Latin America.
What McCollum didn't talk about was the horrendous bill he co-sponsored in 1996, when anti-immigration sentiment was running high in this country. The bill, which became law that same year, allowed the deportation of any legal American immigrant who had committed any crime, sometimes even petty crimes such as shoplifting.
The immigrants were given the boot without so much as an appeal. And the law was made retroactive. According to the National Immigration Law Center, it's difficult to tell how many people from Latin America (or any country) were affected by the Immigration Reform Act, but the guess is that it has affected thousands.
Last October, McCollum submitted a bill that would amend the 1996 law so that certain immigrants could apply for re-entry into the United States under certain conditions. He introduced his plan after he'd asked Congress to allow Robert A. Broley, the son of a former Orange County Republican Party treasurer, to return to this country. Broley had been deported to Canada after being convicted of felony theft and fraud charges.
Several hours after the Hispanic Coalition event, McCollum was seated on the lawn near the Orlando Science Center. This time he was speaking to a group of Republican women. Before he was introduced, Al Cardenas, head of the Republican state party, enumerated the reasons Al Gore would make a bad president. Among them was that Gore seemed to want the presidency "a little too much."
Yet behind him sat McCollum, who rode to Congress during the Abscam crisis on the promise that he'd promote congressional term limits.
Several minutes later, the Republican women introduced a boy who they'd pledged to put through college. Kids like him haven't always gotten a break from McCollum, however. In 1996 as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, McCollum put forward a get-tough-on-kids proposal that allowed juveniles 14 and older to automatically be tried as adults should they commit violent crimes or major drug offenses. Up to that point, it was up to judges to decide how to try teenagers.
Drugs are, in fact, McCollum's weak spot. He utterly can't stand the fact that anyone gets high, even if it's someone professing to self-medicate themselves.
In 1998, he single-handedly put a stop to the grass-roots medical-marijuana movement by authoring a resolution that "unequivocally opposed" medical patients ingesting marijuana. After the resolution passed, the movement that medical marijuana advocates had advanced in a number of Western states came crashing to a halt. They claim only Hawaii as a significant victory since McCollum's resolution.
"He's cruel, meanspirited and closed-minded," says Chuck Thomas, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
MPP exacted a measure of revenge on McCollum by escorting a multiple sclerosis patient named Renee Emry into McCollum's congressional office, where, in a display of civil disobedience, she smoked about half a joint. Thomas says McCollum's staff members were evacuated as the smell of pot smoke wafted down the halls of Congress. "It was really quite an event," he says.
Not everybody is lucky enough to voice disapproval directly to McCollum's face, however. Most people probably don't realize McCollum has worked against them until it's too late, if then.
For example, most mobile-home owners probably don't know that McCollum co-sponsored the Manufactured Housing Improvement Bill in 1998, which would have weakened federal authority over the safety of mobile homes. The bill, which was backed by the Manufactured Housing Institute, an industry group that has contributed to McCollum's re-election campaigns, would have shifted oversight of construction and safety of mobile homes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to a committee made up in part of industry executives. McCollum co-sponsored this bill in the same year that 21 people living in mobile homes in his district died when tornadoes tore through Central Florida.
His willingness to work closely with groups that pay him campaign cash has not gone unnoticed in Washington. The nonprofit Public Campaign awarded McCollum the very first Golden Leash Award in 1998, a designation given to congressional members believed to be in the pocket of contributors.
According to Public Campaign, McCollum has received more than $660,000 from the financial services industry throughout his tenure in Congress, $153,499 in 1999. To make matters worse, McCollum hasn't passively received these donations. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, McCollum has targeted banks like MBNA Corp. and Bank One Corp. with requests for campaign cash.
These banks certainly wanted something for their charity. And McCollum has, to borrow another term from George W.'s campaign, delivered big time. He has quite literally become the father of modern-day bankruptcy reform, a dubious title given what is at stake.
In the mid-1990s, a bipartisan committee reviewed the entire bankruptcy process and made many recommendations for change. But the credit industry didn't think the reform went far enough. So they enlisted the help of McCollum, vice chairman of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, who authored a 400-page bill that would have made it difficult for debtors seeking bankruptcy to file in federal court. The politician who favors less government wanted many more hoops for debtors to jump through before filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the most common type of personal bankruptcy the government recognizes.
Not only that, McCollum's bankruptcy reform bill would require that banks and other lenders be paid before other financial obligations, such as child support. It should be noted that the average person filing bankruptcy earns $22,000 a year and is likely to be a single mother or farmer, more so than a millionaire playing the bankruptcy system. Meaning that unless McCollum's 562,000 constituents are bankers, he's done most of them a disservice by writing his bill.
"He certainly didn't have the regular person in mind," says Susan Anderson, Public Campaign's Washington director.
McCollum also screwed consumers when he supported the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. The bill, which died in committee, overhauls a Depression-era law that prohibited banks and other lenders from sharing your personal financial information. McCollum's bill changed that. Financial service companies would have been allowed to pass back and forth your financial history, if they were part of the same company. So a bank that has an insurance company as a subsidiary can turn over your checking account information.
Which means consumers will be bombarded with unsolicited financial opportunities. For example, a stockbroker might contact you at the exact time when your certificate of deposits mature.
That places consumers in jeopardy of venturing into risky investments. NationsBank was fined $7 million for sharing information with Nation's Securities, its subsidiary, which rerouted conservative investors into high-risk derivative funds.
These types of scenarios scare consumer groups away from McCollum. Not to mention that his lifetime poor voting record, 23 percent, on consumer issues has gotten progressively worse. "For the last two to four years McCollum has had one of the most damaging consumer records in Congress," says Travis Puckett, the legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America, the largest consumer-protection group in the country.
Given the amount of evidence against him, maybe it won't surprise Bill McCollum that many people will be cheering for his defeat on election night. Many of them probably won't be dreaded liberals, or fans of Nelson or Clinton, or even people on the verge of bankruptcy. Maybe it will just be people from everyday walks of life, who have been sold out in one way or another by Brooksville's favorite son.